DEATH THRESHOLD: Your death threshold is a negative number equal to your maximum hit points or your Constitution score (whichever is greater). For example, if you have a maximum of 23 hit points, then your death threshold is -23.
ALIVE: You are alive as long as your current hit points are above your death threshold.
DEAD: You are dead if your current hit points are below your death threshold. Dead characters automatically lose 1 hp per round.
Once you reach 0 hit points you are considered disabled. A disabled character move at half speed and may only take a partial action each round. Disabled characters who perform a standard action (or any other strenuous action, such as casting a quickened spell) take 1 hp of damage after the action.
While you’re disabled, you must make a Fortitude save (DC 10 + the number of hit points below zero) each time you take damage (including the damage which resulted in you becoming disabled). If you fail this save you fall unconscious.
Unless you have stabilized (see below), you take 1 hp of damage per round while disabled.
TENDED CHARACTERS: A disabled character can be helped with a first aid check (Heal, DC 15). On a success, the character stabilizes and begins healing naturally.
UNTENDED CHARACTERS: A disabled character without assistance who takes no action in a round has a 10% chance of stabilizing. Even after stabilizing they may still take additional damage, however: Each day they must make a 10% roll to start healing naturally. If they fail this check, they instead suffer 1 hp of damage and must check again the next day
WAKING UP: Once an unconscious disabled character has been stabilized, they have a 10% chance of waking up each hour. An untended character (who has not benefited from a first aid check) who fails to wake up also takes 1 hp of damage with each failed check.
NATURAL HEALING: After a full night’s rest (8 hours of sleep or more), you recover 1 hit point per character level. Any significant interruption during your rest prevents you from healing that night. If you undergo complete bed rest for an entire day and night, you recover twice your character level in hit points.
MAGICAL HEALING: Magical healing spells are maximized (they always restore the maximum possible number of hit points). Any magical healing automatically stabilizes a character. A character unconscious as a result of their injuries also wakes up as a result of magical healing.
There are no spells which return the dead to life (raise dead, etc.). However, even dead characters can benefit from magical healing and are returned to life if their hit point total is raised above the death threshold. After 24 hours of death, however, a character is lost forever and cannot be returned to life.
GENTLE REPOSE: A gentle repose spell temporarily stops the loss of hit points a dead character suffers. It also extends the period of time in which a character can be revived.
CONSTITUTION SCORE DAMAGE
Characters reduced to 0 Constitution are dead, but still have whatever hit points were left to them. They still lose 1 hit point per round until their Constitution is raised to at least 1. If their hit points drop below their death threshold, it will be necessary to raise both their Constitution and their hit points in order to return them to life.
Note: Clerics may spontaneously cast lesser restoration, restoration, and greater restoration spells as if they were cure spells.
Any special ability or spell that results in death instead causes 4d6 points of Constitution damage. On a successful save, the special ability or spell causes 2 points of Constitution damage (instead of whatever effect a save would normally have).
MASSIVE DAMAGE THRESHOLD
There is no massive damage threshold.
These are my personal house rules for death and dying in 3rd Edition. They weren’t conceived all at once, nor were they designed to overcome any kind of serious mechanical flaw in the system. Rather, they’re a slow accretion of various tweaks which I use to change the flavor of death in the game.
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
The first set of changes I put into place was the removal of raise dead, resurrection, and similar spells. The motivation here was relatively simple: I don’t like the revolving door of death. Death is a powerful and dramatic event… unless, of course, it happens at the gaming table. At the gaming table it’s usually a joke. Or, at worst, a minor inconvenience.
This problem of flavor goes beyond de-valuing the meaning of death. With even a modicum of logical thought, it completely changes the nature of the game world. At the most obvious level, you will never have a story which begins “when the old king died in the Battle of Batok’s Pass”. You also have to realize that assassination becomes almost pointless: In such a world, the country doesn’t go into mourning when JFK is shot in Dallas… it criticizes him for being a narcissistic slacker when he refuses to respond to the raise dead spell.
It gets more severe (and more bizarre) from there.
These kinds of thought experiments and what-if games can certainly have interesting results. But I’ll confess that I’m generally looking for something that looks a bit more like Middle Earth and a lot less like transhumanist fantasy (which sounds like a fascinating, albeit largely untapped, sub-genre).
So I got rid of raise dead.
But this creates a new problem: It’s a lethal game. And I like combat to be risky. Combining risky combat with an absolute barrier between life and death will result in a lot of new characters being rolled up. The revolving door may be gone, but death still becomes de-valued because players stop investing themselves in characters they know have the life expectancy of tissue paper in a blast furnace.
More precisely, I didn’t want to increase the actual lethality of the game (measured in characters permanently removed from gameplay). Nor did I want to decrease the challenges of the game. I needed to shift the flavor without shifting the gameplay.
The solution was to re-imagine what the -10 hit point barrier meant: It was still a death of the body, but not a departure of the soul. Thus, clerics could use their divine healing to bring back even those whose bodies had been punished beyond the point of natural healing.
The result is a mechanic that looks a bit more like an emergency room resuscitation than Jesus rising from the dead.
This is a subtle change, but one that removes the flavor problems that come from a hero’s spirit constantly yo-yoing between this world and the next.
For many years, this was the only change I made to the death and dying rules. Playtesting did reveal a few problem areas that needed to be dealt with, but for the most part these rules worked and worked well.
One early discovery was that Constitution damage had suddenly become much more horrible. In the standard game, the difference between dying from Constitution damage and dying from hit point damage was non-existent: In either case, you needed a raise dead spell to bring you back. But, under the new rules, hit point damage could simply be healed through spontaneous casting whereas Constitution damage would frequently require a prepared restoration spell… at which point the character’s moldering corpse would have accrued a huge tally of negative hit points.
This led to the simple expedient of allowing clerics to also spontaneously cast restoration spells.
The other effect of this rule change was to smooth out the differences between low- and mid-level play. Using the standard rules, low-level characters have a practical barrier between life-and-death. While they might theoretically be raised from the dead, in practice the party lacks the resources to afford a raise dead spell. Plus, given the low-levels involved, there’s a minimal investment in the existing character and a minimal time commitment required to roll up a new character.
And then, for a few levels, coming back from the dead becomes a possibility, but an expensive one: The cost of getting the spell cast will seriously deplete the party’s resources.
And then death becomes a speed bump.
This is one of the things that leads to the perception that low-level play is so much more difficult and lethal than high-level play: Not only do you have a smaller pool of hit points and a smaller margin for error, but the barrier between life-and-death still exists — so death is death and you’re not coming back.
Under these house rules, on the other hand, this continuum is made a little less extreme: Low-level characters can hit -10 and still be brought back.
Speaking of that -10 barrier, we come to a widely-recognized shortcoming in mid- and high-level play: The tougher you become, the more likely you are to die than you are to fall unconscious.
Why? Because, as the average damage inflicted by any given blow increases, the chance that any given blow will catapult you directly from positive hit points to negative hit points and death increases. For example, if you suffer a blow for 5 hp there is no chance that you’ll be immediately killed by it. If you’re suffering blows doing an average of 25 hp, on the other hand, the odds drastically increase for such an opportunity.
The solution for this is to increase the number of negative hit points a higher level character can suffer before actually dying. And the simplest solution for this is to give everyone the same number of hit points below 0 as they do above 0.
Finally, I had a desire to decouple unconsciousness and dying. There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, one of the shortcomings of the game has always been its inability to handle a person’s “dying words” or “final effort”. It’s a literary classic: The dying man exerts just enough energy to whisper, “Your mother yet lives!” or “Rosebud!” or “From hell’s teeth I spit at you!” Or perhaps the dying heroine manages to hold onto the detonation device until her companions have escaped. But, in the game, a dying character is always unconscious — and thus unable of uttering dying words, making a final heroic gesture, or anything else. They can’t even bandage their own wounds.
Second, I’ve always liked the mechanics for being disabled: There’s something dramatic about a wound so severe that taking any strenuous action is literally making your wounds worse. It forces a desperate, bleeding retreat; or it offers the hero a chance to grit their teeth and achieve something remarkable; or it leaves the villain staggering as the hero surges forward for their triumph.
But, unfortunately, the disabled condition only happens when a character lands precisely at 0 hit points. And then it only lasts for, at most, a single round before they keel over into unconsciousness.
Both of these problems can be solved by decoupling dying and unconsciousness, as shown in the house rules.
And, as ancillary benefit, this mechanic also allows the dying condition to serve as a “warning track” of sorts. Instead of just plugging away at full power until, suddenly, the character is completely out of it, now a PC is more likely to enter the dying state and be able to do something about it: Bind their wounds. Call out for the cleric. Gulp down a healing potion.
THE PROBLEM OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS
One problem I haven’t solved yet is the problem of unconsciousness. More specifically, the problem of waking someone up who has been unconscious.
In real life, if someone gets knocked unconscious you can frequently (but not always) wake them up again by slapping them, throwing water in their face, or waving smelling salts under their nose. In the game, however, this doesn’t work. If you’ve hurt someone enough to knock them unconscious, the only thing you can do is either (a) magically heal them or (b) wait a very long time for them to naturally heal some damage.
This is a shortcoming, as my players frequently want to model that narrative conceit of slapping a prisoner awake so that they can question them. (Ironically, this can only drive them deeper into unconsciousness using the rules.) Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out any particularly good way (and a simple way) to overcome this shortcoming.
Anyone have thoughts on the matter?