Friday, 24 May 2019


When I read through the D&D 5th edition basic rules at the start of this year I was especially pleased to see the role hit dice played in character recovery. Perhaps it was because it fitted succinctly with the notion I had of hit points representing "combat stamina" rather than physical wounds: characters were able to recover their stamina between encounters by resting, but were limited by the number of hit dice they possessed.

All the damage dice used by a 20th level rogue making a sneak attack
When characters level up, their hit dice increase too, thus increasing their max HP... but also their powers of recovery. Characters spend hit dice to recover HP during short rests, and while character hit points are fully restored after a long rest, the character only regains half their total number of hit points. Hit dice are thus a renewable resource that has to be managed, and while I think the fifth edition rules-as-written for rest and recovery are generous, this concept inspired a few ideas.

If hit points represent a character's stamina in combat on a round by round basis, hit dice represent their ability to recover that stamina, a combination of physical and mental fortitude. Think of a boxer: they go toe-to-toe with another fighter for three minutes (that's THIRTY d&d rounds), avoiding serious damage, but picking up a few knocks and scrapes along the way. Their hit points are being depleted, but between rounds they take a short rest to restore some of their vitality. They catch their breath, any minor wounds are treated, and they hopefully receive a physical and mental boost to go back into the ring and deal with their opponent in the next round. By the start of the next round, they're probably in much better shape than they were at the end of the first, but worse off than they were at the start of the fight. I feel this brief recovery is what hit dice represents. As the fight wears on, both fighters are less and less able to restore that lost HP as the deplete their inner reserves, and the chances of someone landing a knockout blow (taking your opponent to 0 HP) increases exponentially.

Hit dice represent a combination of physical and mental fortitude, tempered by experience, that enable a character to push themselves beyond the normal physical limits of typical human beings.

In 5e rules-as-written, the above example would really find a full in-game analogue, as the short rests needed to expend hit dice are substantially longer than the break in boxing rounds. However, fighters possess a class feature, second wind, enabling them to use a bonus action to regain d10+level hit points. The feature may once be used between short rests. If it wasn't before, it should now be clear that all professional boxers have at least one level in 'fighter', and probably more.

Fighters use a d10 as their hit dice, so it's a very minor alteration to the rules to allow them to freely spend hit dice in lieu of a nebulous class skill. Using hit dice makes it easier to track, but ultimately more conservative in terms of hit points dished out...

Level Max HP via Second Wind (4 short rests) Max HP via Second Wind (HD+CON 18)
1 55 HP (11 between rests) 14 HP
2 60 HP (12 between rests) 28 HP
3 65 HP (13 between rests 42 HP
4 70 HP (14 between rests 56 HP
5 75 HP (15 between rests HP 70 HP
6 80 HP (16 between rests 84 HP
7 85 HP (17 between rests 98 HP
8 90 HP (18 between rests 112 HP
9 95 HP (19 between rests) 126 HP
10 100 HP (20 between rests) 140 HP
11 105 HP (21 between rests) 154 HP
12 110 HP (22 between rests) 168 HP

At first glance, it would appear that the first level fighter is better off under RAW until level 6, when things start to gallop away. But it's worth considering that under RAW hit dice are only replenished at a rate of half/total number following every long rest, so a fighter has to manage their resources a little more carefully. Throwing in more restrictive rest and recovery rules (hit dice are replenished at a slower rate) and other usage restrictions (such as not allowing this ability if a fighter is at half HP or less) give it another layer of crunch.

Considering of hit dice as a measure of mental and physical fortitude opens up other opportunities for hit dice to augment class features. Perhaps, at certain levels, a fighter can expend hit dice to gain a bonus to an attack or damage roll, or even to operate alongside manoeuvres (like the non-srd battle master's superiority dice). Expanding this into other classes, hit dice could augment a rogue's sneak attack, a cleric's healing, or even a wizard's damage dice.

The purpose of using hit dice in this way is to simulate the effects of fatigue, to allow more flexibility on the part of the PC and to represent characters calling on their inner reserves in order to ensure a manoeuvre is effective. In most cases, class features shouldn't be entirely dependent on hit dice: a rogue's sneak attack could still increase at the normal rate (1d6 every two levels), but the PC might choose to add their hit dice to the attack as well as sneak attack dice.

There are tonnes of OSR systems featuring pools of casting or spell dice, which either govern spell success/failure, spell effect intensity, misfire probability, or all of the aforementioned. I'm still considering how to make magic work and to be more interesting, but I'm fairly certain that hit dice will come into it somehow.

The simplest augmentation would be to allow hit dice to represent additional spell slots, or at least allow the expenditure of a hit die to correspond to increasing the spell's level.

In some early versions of D&D, a character's initial hit die determines the damage die rolled, regardless of the weapon used. This tradition was revived in the Black Hack (and possibly other OD&D clones), and draws mixed reactions: on the one hand, a fighter should be able to do more damage than a magic-user using the same weapon (either with equal attributes); on the other hand a two-handed sword should deal more damage than a dagger.

Keeping the class variety and hit dice flavour while varying damage by weapon size and type can be achieved through a number of mechanics (proficiency adding bonuses to damage etc.) , but is beyond the purview of this post. Still, food for thought.

Making hit dice as the central mechanic for the game engine strikes me as elegant and in-keeping with a swords-and-sorcery approach to D&D. It scales with level and follows a strict, class-based hierarchy.

As with death and injury, how these suggested rules changes work at the table is largely dependent on rules concerning rest and recovery... so that's the next project...

Incidentally, here's my proposed hit dice array for the core classes:
d4 d6 d8 d10
"Path"(class) Magic-User Rogue Cleric; Elf Fighter; Dwarf

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