Dungeons & Dragons Online

The “Dying” condition, and retaining drama while increasing survivability

I said this elsewhere on Reddit, but I figured it's relevant to this sub too. 🙂

Alright, so while I'm not afraid of killing a PC, it *must* be dramatic and interesting or else I'll try to find a way out of it. In addition 5/6 of my players are new to D&D and are not fond of the idea of their PC's dying. I solve both problem in four parts. 1: a style of describing reductions in HP, 2: a homebrew rule I call the "dying" condition, 3: a homebrew rule about "Scarring", and 4: my campaign setting regarding clerics, healing magic, and the consequences of resurrection.

  1. A better way to think about damage and HP.
    The PHB page 197 says "Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. …… The loss of hit points has no effect on a creature's capabilities until the creature drops to 0 hit points."
    I remember someone calling HP "Heroic Points", and I like the concept: instead of thinking about every reduction in HP as "receiving harm" you can imagine it as "reducing your ability to fight".
    THE KEY: Describe the moment when they take damage.
    Try to preemptively consider dramatic ways to express damage. The psychic damage from "Vicious Mockery" is literally weaponized self-doubt and depression. It doesn't have to be "his brain hurts", it can be "you can see his resolve weakens by 5HP".
    A competent fighter with 19 AC uses his shield to deflect an attack of 18, but an attack of 20 beats the shield INTO the fighter, causing weariness. He breathes more heavily, sweat begins to pour down. His stamina is reduced by 8HP.
    A rapier jabs inbetween armor, inflicting a stab to the arm, but nothing vital. Her vitality is reduced by 7HP.
    This is ALSO how you control how cool someone feels in combat. You don't just "attack for 17, which hits, dealing 12 slashing damage", you "bring down your greatsword, they try to block with their rapier but the weight pushes down, you feel the sword plunge into their shoulder, they lose 12HP of blood. What type of damage? Blood loss damage.
    Nobody gives a hoot what their damage type is unless resistances/weaknesses are involved. Until then, they take whatever damage sounds the coolest to narrate.

  2. The "dying" condition.
    Important note first: this WILL make surviving easier, but it leads to some potentially dramatic moments.
    When you are dropped to 0hp from bludgeoning damage, you are knocked unconscious like normal. Conversely, the only way to knock people unconscious is with magic or bludgeoning damage.
    Do it by psychic damage and you either lose your will to fight or are in mental pain depending on the source.
    Do it by any other damage type and you are "dying".
    Death saves still work like normal, BUT after you make your roll at the start of your turn you can choose to either drag yourself 5 feet OR spend a death save failure to perform an Action (only one attack for the Attack Action). And yes, that means that as long as you don't have 2 failures, you can drink your own HP potion to recover, or if you don't have one you can attempt to use a Healers Kit to stabilize yourself by bandaging the wound, putting yourself in a Stable condition at 0hp but if you try to do anything strenuous it reopens the wound.
    While in the "Dying" condition, a creature within 5 feet can use its reaction to stop your Action because you're moving sluggishly. When stopped, you do not incur the death save failure penalty from the attempt.
    A "dying" creature can whisper to another creature within 30 feet, or spend a death save to shout.
    Neither you nor an ally can "stabilize" a creature without either magic, a Healer Kit, or proficiency in Medicine/Nature and adequate supplies nearby.

  3. Scars
    When a PC is knocked into the "dying" condition, roll a percentile. On a 1-10 they get a permanent scar that can only be removed by "Greater Restoration".
    Even though this means they're mechanically inconsequential, it means that getting beaten badly still *risks* something, there's cost involved. You can even bump it up to 1-20 to make it extra possible.

  4. Healing, Clerics, and Resurrection
    In my campaign clerics are as rare as they are IRL. Nobody wants to be one, and the few who do rarely want to be put in dangerous situations. And of THOSE, you're only going to find people who know how to do more than "Revivify" either as a hermit or maybe like 4 major metropolitan cities and they'll be mad expensive, or you'll owe them major favors.
    Then, eventually there's a necromancy surge at which point resurrection spells will become much more common.
    Then there's something called "The Soul of the Revenant" that will increase in any character who is resurrected in my campaign which comes with plotline altering hidden affects.

If, after all this, you PC *still* dies… maybe your story would be more interesting if they did. Maybe just let their characters sort through that.

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