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Dungeons and Dragons: Should Modern Hit Point Mechanics Reflect Modern Play Styles?

All Hail Gary Gygax, King of the Nerds!

Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it crawl around in a dungeon. In fact, the “dungeon” portion of Dungeons and Dragons is hardly an apt description anymore. Not only have the literal makeup of dungeons changed over the decades but playstyles have changed remarkably as well.

D&D is no longer a dungeon crawl like in the games of yesteryear.

The game’s hard shift toward roleplaying means that modern D&D players might go entire sessions without killing a monster, much less looting a corpse, which really takes the bite out of the ‘murder hobo’ jokes. Roll initiative? Nah. Roll a Performance check. In fact, what is considered a combat-heavy session is rarely more than one fight before a big rest.

Here’s the reality: There is ample healing in D&D 5e, so it’s rare that a party gets caught in a pickle at less than full health. So, should the rules and mechanics of D&D 5e be tweaked to reflect the reality of today’s play style? Well, since the Internet is devoid of think pieces [/s], let’s spend a few words digging into it.

Hit Points: Then vs Now

D&D games of yesteryear often had a “push your luck” element to them. As players crawled through an expansive dungeon, there would be monsters everywhere. They’d pop up with little rhyme or reason and often spawn randomly without warning. Worse yet, there was nowhere to hide and you certainly couldn’t expect your character to get a good night’s sleep. Have you ever tried sleeping in the middle of a filthy goblin warren? Not pleasant.

And healing was scarce! Players would weigh the consequences of pushing it by opening another door, as the monsters that certainly lay in wait on the other side might mean the characters’ luck just ran out.

Equipment like the 10-foot pole had a quirky impact on the game simply because they were tools that helped adventurers determine just how much further they could proceed safely. Some of the game’s classic adventures were infamous for it. It wasn’t if you’d die in the Tomb of Horrors, the real game was to see just how far you could stretch it before you died violently in the Tomb of Horrors.

Nowadays, two things are happening simultaneously:

  1. Adding new powers, abilities, stuff at each level is fun, so that feeling of advancement is built right in. For D&D 5e this means that characters get their Hit Die plus Constitution Modifier worth of hit points at each and every level.
  2. As mentioned previously, modern gaming is bringing more roleplaying and less resource-draining combats. High-level play in D&D 5e isn’t Tomb of Horrors(esque) by any means. If anything, the real horror is the verbosity of the roleplay.

You add those two things together and you realize that as you level up to like level 8 or 9 and healing resources are abundant, the monsters typically are just dealing flesh wounds to adventurers.

Dungeon Masters (DMs) handle this in different ways. Some deal out maximum damage according to the range listed in the monster stat block. Others tweak the monsters by adding levels or templates, a trick brought over from 3rd edition and Pathfinder. Sprinkle in an extra die of damage here, tack on some extra abilities there. That’s how Tarrasques are made!

As for me? I cheat. I DM often for my middle school daughter and my nephews and I simply have monsters hit when I want them to and deal the damage I want them to. I read the faces and emotions of the players as we are going along and I simply adjust the combat levels on the fly in order to pack the emotional wallops I want from the combats.

But DM as improvisational artist isn’t for everyone. So what’s the solution? I have two suggestions:

  1. Don’t worry about it. Just take what the math of D&D 5e gives you. It’s OK that monster damage doesn’t quite scale aggressively. Quit reading doofuses like me, play your game, and have fun.
  2. Boost the math. D&D 5e has “average” damage dealt by each monster. Rather than use the average, use the maximum. Simple.

But since this is a think piece, let me suggest something that has no opportunity of ever happening and is entirely impractical in today’s D&D culture, yet allows me to feel smug and superior on the Internet which, let’s be honest, is the primary motivator of modern humanity.

My suggestion: Let’s harken back to the days of Lord Gygax, King of the Nerds.

Modern D&D players see Gary Gygax as crusty and out-of-touch, but he was typically right. D&D 5e is like that 19-year-old who reads The Fountainhead his first year of college and suddenly thinks he knows everything about the world. However, after having his first child he realizes that – while maybe not willing to concede his dad was right – he can now at least see where his dad was coming from and now understands he certainly still has a lot to learn himself.

While I can’t fully remember the detailed particulars of Gygax’s hit point system, I remember that once characters hit a certain level, the amount of hit points they received at every level slowed down to a (dungeon) crawl.

Yeah, seriously. King Gygax cut his players off. Sure, they still added a few hit points when they leveled up (Maybe it was 3? Again, I can’t remember.), but players didn’t continue to receive their full Hit Die plus Con Mod at higher levels.

I’m a big fan of hit points. We need a mathematical expression for the health of players. But like crusty old Gygax, perhaps we could stand to up the ante at higher levels and limit the amount of hit points that players receive.

Maybe just allow their Con Mod, yet skip their Hit Die after level 8 or so? IDK, this is a think piece. It doesn’t mean I’ve thought this all out, thereby joining in the rich tradition of internet articles everywhere.

Alas, it really is fun to gain more abilities at each level, including more and more hit points. It feels good to feel powerful. A reason I prefer a game like Pathfinder 2e is because you gain new stuff at every level, even if it’s just a slight feat or flavor ability.

But the point is: You gain something at every level. That feels fun. And isn’t that what the game is about?

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