Dungeons & Dragons Online

Making reaching 0 HP in combat more meaningful, while also maintaining game balance.

Quick background: I run a 5e game with (usually) 8 players who, after 3+ years of alternating between campaigns, have recently reached lvl 20. These homerules have been implemented at my table for almost a year now, and has seen use in both high- and low-level gameplay.

For a long while I wondered how to make my games, specifically combat scenarios, a bit more intense and realistic for my players, especially once they had access to a multitude of spells for applying that sweet healing touch when one of them went down and started making death saves. Rules as Written (RAW) states that "When a creature receives healing of any kind, hit points are regained are added to its current hit points. … Unconsciousness ends if you regain any hit points." (PHB 197)

I've read advice addressing this and decided that much of it didn't fit with the large group that I run:
– Making the rolls for the players in secret wouldn't do much; there were too many of them with healing capabilities for more than just one roll to usually be made before that player is back up again
– Forcing the healing to equal or exceed the excess damage the player took had merit, but I dismissed it as it would slow combat down further by requiring players or the DM to keep track of more numbers, and could make the idea of bringing a player back up completely unfeasible at higher levels when baddies are capable of dealing 50+ points of damage in a single go.

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No, what I needed was a way to make players consider the risks of wading into combat with low HP, without slowing combat further than it already is (remember I have 8 players), and ideally would also provide a way that would make them feel empowered and like the heroes they (mostly) were.

I found my solution in other RP systems, taking inspiration from conversations from coworkers who mainly play 3.5, Pathfinder, and Pathfinder 2e, and came up with Wounds. These are gained whenever a player regains consciousness (such as from healing) after dropping to 0 HP, and cause the following effects:

  • Each accrued Wound increases the DC for Death Saving Throws by 1
  • Dropping to 0 HP while with 3 Wounds causes the player to instantly die, instead of rolling Death Saves
  • Being raised from death (such as Revivify) brings the character back with 3 Wounds
  • Spells and effects that remove Exhaustion (such as Greater Restoration or taking a long rest) decreases the number of Wounds by 1

My initial goal accomplished, I just needed a way to help the players avoid gaining a Wound, beyond simply expecting them to play more tactfully in combat, and once again found inspiration in other RP systems, and thus Heroic Moments were born. Each player gains one use of a Heroic Moment at the start of the session, but cannot have more than one, and they can be used in the following ways:

  • Gain advantage on a single attack roll (declared before rolling)
  • Gain advantage on a single Skill check (declared before rolling)
  • Turn any Saving Throw into a Nat. 20 (declared before knowing the results of the roll)
  • If used for a Death Saving Throw, the character does not gain a Wound upon returning to 1 HP
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Lastly, because I am a cruel and vindictive DM who insists on Roleplay in his Roleplay games, when a player uses their Heroic Moment I will usually ask them to describe how they are Heroically doing whatever it is they are attempting (ie a Skyrim-esque kill cam shot, a Sherlock Holmes eureka moment, or quippy 1-liner as they gasp back to life and continue the fight). Thus far it has brought a welcome addition of challenge to the game, and I hope it will help those who read this and find themselves in the same shoes as I was. Please share your thoughts, comments, or suggestions below, and thanks for reading my ramble.

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