(TL;DR Summary: This is my variant of the Vitality/Wounds optional rules for dealing with damage. It improves verisimilitude for d20-compatible game systems, as compared with the default Hit Point system. It’s also designed to be simpler and smoother than the Vitality/Wounds system as presented in Unearthed Arcana.)
This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
In Introducing the Mage Class, Release Candidate 1, I mentioned that I’m using a variation on the Vitality/Wounds system presented in the D&D 3.5 Unearthed Arcana book. I first mentioned something about it more than a year ago — at least as far back as June 2008, in Damage Systems in D&D and Pathfinder and Making Combat Better with the 20+Nd9 Critical System.
The system has undergone a little bit of evolution in how I use it since then. The current form of it, which I developed while thinking about how to put together a listing of house rules to use in a new campaign, looks a little something like this:
Two stats on the character sheet that are relevant are Constitution and Vitality. Basically, “Vitality” is what we now think of as Hit Points. In that respect, it’s no different from the original Vitality/Wounds system. There isn’t a Wounds total as a separate stat on the sheet, though — there’s just Constitution. This is because, instead of treating the on-sheet stats as pools that can be depleted, I treat them as thresholds. More on that later.
One takes damage as Hit Points. HP are recorded on the sheet as a positive number, rather than subtracted from a Hit Point pool. Some people already do this when tracking HP damage, simply maintaining a static HP pool total and a cumulative total of damage taken, though I think the vast majority probably maintain a static HP pool total and a second number that is that same total minus any HP damage taken so far.
Any time a critical hit occurs, the HP damage gets assessed in two ways.
The HP damage is assessed as a Wound Point damage quantity, which is tracked as a cumulative number the same way as normal HP.
The HP damage is also assessed as a Hit Point damage quantity, added to the running total of HP damage taken, but before it is assessed it is multiplied by the critical hit multiplier of the weapon. More on that later.
More on that later.
If someone takes enough HP of damage to exceed his Vitality total, any additional damage is assessed as WP instead.
When HP equals or exceeds Vitality, the character is unconscious. When WP equals or exceeds Constitution, the character’s life functions cease. In practice, the character is dead. More on that later.
A character whose WPs equal or exceed his Constitution is dead. Of course, they might still be saved by use of magic or heroic lifesaving Heal checks. Every round after the WP total equals the Constitution score, another WP (and another HP, if the character hasn’t already taken as many HP of damage as his Vitality) of damage is automatically assessed, though, so such attempts to save the character should be made quickly.
Apply a -10 penalty to any Heal check made to resuscitate the character. If the result is enough to bring the WP total below the character’s Constitution, the character is healed by that many WPs. At that point, the point of damage every round suffered because of taking more WP damage than his Constitution score halts. Any bleeding damage, however, must be dealt with via a separate Heal check or magical healing attempt, or the character may take more WP damage and end up dying again.
Magical healing just applies to Wound Points as normal — so that any magical healing that can reduce Wound Point totals do so, and if the total is brought below the level of the character’s Constitution score, he has been resuscitated.
Whys and Wherefores
The following is just a listing of some reasoning for some of the decisions I’ve made in adjusting the Vitality/Wounds system.
More On Thresholds
One thing that programming has taught me is that data should not be stored in multiple places. This is particular to programs, of course — and says nothing about backups. Another such lesson from programming is that of simplifying the operations of a program so that, where possible, the same set of steps can be used to perform multiple operations. A character sheet is, in some respects, similar to a program. That similarity helped inspire me to reduce the duplication of data on a character sheet and unify the way different, but similar, operations are handled.
By using Constitution as a threshold for Wounds damage, rather than copying the Constitution to produce a new and separate Wounds stat, I’ve reduced the duplication of data on the sheet. By calling the Wounds damage Wound Points, I’ve made it a parallel with Hit Points, and by calling the total of the Hit Point capacity of the character Vitality and making that a threshold for a positive Hit Point number that accumulates damage taken, I’ve turned the potentially somewhat different pool-tracking Vitality and positive threshold use of Wounds into a pair of identically managed threshold values.
More On Critical Damage
The canonical Vitality/Wounds system in Unearthed Arcana suggests using critical multipliers as an adjustment to the threat range of the weapon. Doing so involved a bit too complex a bit of arithmetic to make it reasonable, though. It isn’t difficult arithmetic — but it is complex enough so that, in the course of play, it is likely to get ignored or fudged. The formula for translating critical multipliers into threat range modifiers looks, in its simplest form, like this (with CM standing in for the critical multiplier number, and TR standing in for the minimum number for the weapon’s threat range in the standard weapon stats; NTR is the new threat range):
NTR = TR - CM + 2
Given a Longsword, with a threat range of 19-20 and a multiplier of x2, that translates to:
NTR = 19 - 2 + 2 = 19
For a Handaxe, thats:
NTR = 20 - 3 + 2 = 19
It’s easy enough to make the necessary modifications to the weapon stats on a character sheet for weapons that are regularly used, but when picking up a weapon (say, during an escape from jail) or when a GM has to deal with off-the-cuff NPCs and random combat encounters, it’s too easy to get details like that lost in the shuffle. The problem, of course, is justifiable laziness. We aren’t playing the game for excuses to do extra arithmetic, after all.
More On Unconsciousness and Death
The way that damage is assessed to Vitality and Constitution by way of Hit Points and Wound Points allows for a character to fall unconscious without dying, if HPs reach the level of the character’s Vitality before the character takes enough WPs to die. It also allows for a character to die before falling unconscious by taking enough WPs in damage to reach the level of his Constitution without doing enough HP damage to knock the character out. It does all of this without having to introduce a separate system for determining whether a character falls unconscious.
The following is a summarized explanation of the system, and the way it’s currently described on the house rules description I’m putting together for the new campaign:
Hit Points are a measure of vitality rather than actual physical health. As a character tires out, takes bruises and scrapes, and starts lagging behind an opponent with superior skills in combat, his vitality is sapped, leaving him more and more vulnerable to life threatening wounds. A healthy vitality total is equal to the character’s total hit dice plus his constitution bonus multiplied by the number of hit dice — the same as for rolling up hit points when not using this damage system.
Any time a successful critical hit occurs, or the character takes enough hit point damage to exceed his vitality, damage is instead assessed to a wound point total. When the wound point total equals or exceeds the character’s Constitution, his or her life functions cease. Wound points continue to accumulate at a rate of one per round in addition to any cumulative bleeding damage; the character may be restored to life by making a Heal skill check. Any points in excess of 10 are compared to the total wound points, and if the number reduces wound points to below the character’s Constitution score, he or she is resuscitated. If not, the attempt has no effect. If the character is still bleeding, he or she may still die again due to wound points in excess of Constitution; stopping bleeding requires a separate Heal check.
Critical hits do normal weapon damage as wound points, but they also do HP damage using the critical multiplier as indicated in the weapon’s stats.