Life and Death in d20

English: A scene from a generic fighting game....

I know, I know… but it works.

This question was a followup to the one about Undead and Souls in Basic d20. In this case it’s…

How do hit points and death work in basic d20?

Hit Points in Dungeons and Dragons and d20 have been described in a lot of ways over the years – as skill in avoiding injury, as luck, as divine protection, as structural integrity, as incredible toughness, and as a lot of other things. The trouble with most of those descriptions is simply that they don’t work properly.

  • Hit points work when you’re falling into a blast furnace – and how does “skill” help with that?
  • Hit points can be restored by simple spells that work on some plants and all animals. How is a simple spell forcing the gods to provide more divine protection? How much divine protection is a toad going to be getting anyway, even if it IS someone’s familiar?
  • How much skill in avoiding injury or parrying does a tree have anyway?
  • How much incredible toughness does a ghost with no physical body have?

When the descriptive text is self-contradictory it’s time to look at the mechanics – and what the d20 game mechanics say is that there are three kinds of hit points:

  • There are hit points that are restored by positive energy healing spells. Living things have those – and cease to be living somewhere below zero.
  • There are hit points that are restored by negative energy harming spells. Undead things have those – and fall apart at zero.
  • There are hit points that are restored by mending things. Objects and Constructs have those – and fall apart at zero.

Well, undead hit points are pretty obviously a near mirror-image of the kind that living things get – and object hit points fairly clearly represent structural integrity. Ergo, all we really need to look at is the kind of hit points that living things have.

For a look at that, lets take a look at one of the odder living creatures to be found out there in the d20 lands.

Take a fire elemental – an undifferentiated mass of hot gas. It can merge with a larger fire, and reform from it, just as an earth or water or air elemental can move through their elements. It can be injured by passing a sword through it. Why is that? It’s because it has vitality or “hit points”. It can be healed by the same positive-energy summoning spells that heal humans and it can be injured just like a human by the disruption of whatever structure it has. It can move around on it’s own, despite the lack of muscles. It can PICK THINGS UP despite being made of gas. At least on the material level – where that sword exists – it’s structurally quite identical to an ordinary fire, which can be stabbed all day long without harming or disrupting it one little bit. Ask any blacksmith.

So hit points – and the ability to move about and act on things – have nothing at all to do with this “biology” stuff. We know that because elementals have the same kind of hit points that humans do, but they’re noticeably short on “biology”. Hit points have to do with positive energy – which is why they can be restored, or even increased, by adding more positive energy, either on a temporary basis (while normal healing spells won’t do, spells which augment a spirits capacity and then add more energy work just fine) or through ongoing self-development or “gaining hit dice”.

Ergo, spirits have a reserve of positive energy, and use it to hang onto bodies, and to make them to move and act. That’s how a fire elemental works, that’s why a frail-looking crone can have a twenty strength, that’s why “losing hit points” doesn’t actually weaken or hinder d20 creatures until they’re at zero hit points, why wounds are ablative and measurable by spells like Deathwatch rather than being related to actual physical injuries, and why the “heal” skill accomplishes so little. Mere damaged flesh is not, fundamentally, the problem. Flesh doesn’t really matter to a basic d20 human any more than it does to a basic d20 fire elemental – which doesn’t have any.

It doesn’t really matter whether you feel that positive energy deflects damage like a force field, makes a creature tougher than a steel statue, or compensates for and repairs damage. The net effect is the same. A single crossbow bolt to a mid-level human’s shoulder is a small disruption and a loss of a modest quantity of positive energy. A single crossbow bolt to the heart is a notably greater disruption and causes more loss of positive energy because it impacts the bodies systems over a wider area (thus allowing “sneak attacks” and “criticals”) – but it’s still no problem for a spirit that still has a good reserve of positive energy left. Such a spirit can keep its body going anyway – and once the weapon is out of whatever wound it’s created the spirit can seal it up with ease.

Simply having your metabolism stop without physical damage isn’t lethal; you can be turned to stone, spend a thousand years as a statue, and then get turned back into flesh, and be just fine. (In fact, there’s no really good reason why a spirit can’t animate a statue like a golem save for it not having magic to make it easier and not being used to it. If you want to throw in making those adjustments you’ll want a spell like Iron Body).

Of course, if a “Death Effect” snuffs out a living spirits reserve of positive energy, it will die instantly.

So what about suffocation, starvation, and thirst?

  • They’re fairly simple; a normal human (or animal or similar fleshy) body requires a careful balance of the energies of fire (which feeds on the other elements), earth, air, and water to exist. Earth is stable in itself – which is why bone endures – but the others need to be supplied. Without regular supplies of air, earth (found in food), and water the body starts to suffer damage. Too much damage – which happens very fast when it comes to air as might be expected of a fire – has exactly the same effects as any other kind of damage; death. As the imbalance of elemental energies scontinues to increase after death the body mortifies (too much water), desiccates (too little water), falls to bits (too little earth), petrifies (too much earth), burns or powders (too much fire), or freezes (too little fire). Air is more subtle, but it usually doesn’t hang around at all anyway.

What about “Massive Damage”?

  • The problem here is something better known as Cascade Failure. A complex system – whether it’s an electrical power grid, an ecology, a magical structure, or a fleshy, body – has a great many interdependent components. Every one of them has some tolerance for damage. There is always at least a little redundancy. Such systems can handle many insults, overloads, and bits of damage here and there – but sometimes, when the system is under enough stress, a very tiny nudge here or there can tip the balance. Something starts to give, the stress on associated components abruptly skyrockets, they start to give – and in a couple of seconds you go from “functioning system” to “pile of junk”. For a spirit, that’s just too much physical failure to compensate for.

What about Constitution Damage and Drain?

  • Constitution is a measure of how efficiently a body uses positive energy. That’s why changes to constitution affect hit points immediately, without having to wait for damage or healing. Thus a body at zero constitution can’t bind with positive energy any more – and it doesn’t matter how much positive energy a spirit may have left at that point; no matter how much you multiply by zero, the result is still zero.

Diseases and such are just a variant on this; a “disease” is a lot of tiny parasites that reduce the bodies ability to bind with positive energy – possibly by sucking it up themselves. Too much of THAT and – inevitably – down you go.

What about old age?

  • Death from old age isn’t a physical failure in d20. After all, learn the right disciplines or spells and you can alter your physical age as you please or even get a whole new body – and yet most of those abilities do not extend your lifespan. Similarly, you can’t Raise or Resurrect someone who has died of old age.

And you don’t even need a body at all for a Resurrection.

If it isn’t a physical failure, it must be a spiritual one. Ergo, at some point, the spirit loses the ability to channel positive energy into a physical body. In most creatures that’s a gradual process with some warning signs; first the spirit can no longer keep up with superficial, cosmetic, signs – graying hair, wrinkles, and so on – then you get stiffness, degenerative problems, slower healing, less resistance to disease, and the deeper signs of aging – and then, in the end, even if the spirit manages to evade lesser causes of death, the amount of positive energy the spirit can push into the body will no longer suffice. Irreversible natural death occurs.

Are there other possible explanations for hit points? Of course there are; they’re just a lot harder for me to fit into the d20 rules set. They mostly require either some very convoluted reasoning to make them fit the d20 mechanics or major changes to those mechanics.

Now, the d20 mechanics are hardly perfect. They have limitations, they don’t simulate “common sense” very well when it comes to things like injuries, and they’re pretty abstract in places – but they do play reasonably well and are usually fun. Sure, I could hack in some far more realistic rules about injuries and combat – but just ask any real soldier. Realistic combat is NOT FUN. Realistic injuries are NOT FUN. Playing “desperate terror, sickening adrenalin rushes, and horrible pain with a high statistical chance of death” is NOT FUN. Playing “three months in the hospital and then maimed for life” is NOT FUN.

“Fun” is why we’re playing these games. Given how much most role-playing game rely on combat to generate excitement, where realism gets in the way of fun, realism gets thrown under a bus and then buried in a shallow anonymous grave.

Thus, in some realms, injuries are hindering and complex, they often fail to heal entirely, and even a tiny injury in the right place can kill. There death is often a slow process – and chunks of your body and mind can die before others. The line is hard to draw, and that gradual fading is a mystery to most men. The nature of life there is entirely different from it’s nature in a basic d20 universe – and it’s ending is equally strange by d20 standards.

In a – far more fortunate and far more entertaining – basic d20 realm death is simple. To quote the SRD:

A character dies when his or her hit points drop to -10 or lower. A character also dies when his or her Constitution drops to 0, and certain spells or effects (such as failing a Fortitude save against massive damage) can also kill a character outright. Death causes the character’s soul to leave the body and journey to an Outer Plane. Dead characters cannot benefit from normal or magical healing, but they can be restored to life via magic. A dead body decays normally unless magically preserved, but magic that restores a dead character to life also restores the body either to full health or to its condition at the time of death (depending on the spell or device). Either way, resurrected characters need not worry about rigor mortis, decomposition, and other conditions that affect dead bodies.

When a spirit no longer has enough of a reserve of positive energy to hang onto it’s physical body, it begins slipping – moving from from “-1″ on down, much like a man losing his grip on a tree branch. Once that spirit runs out of positive energy, it falls. One billionth of a second before the fall, simple healing magic can see the victim hail and hearty in an instant. One billionth of a second afterwards, the bond of spirit and body is broken and the victim is dead. In basic d20 worlds the spirit is immediately drawn to it’s destination plane, just as a man holding onto a tree branch is drawn to the ground once he loses his grip.

Some spirits find ways to stick around – dropping to a “support” above the “ground” – using negative energy to return as an “Undead”, psychic power to persist as a free spirit, or many other methods. Such things are judged unnatural by many – and negative energy “life” is inherently malevolent and destructive of positive-energy life – but there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with doing so.

So much for life and death.

As for what comes after…

Under standard 20 rules, a spirit pretty much loses it’s individuality once deceased; it becomes a generic “petitioner” in the afterlife and can be killed again – being annihilated (if they aren’t for a long time they’ll eventually be absorbed into the structure of the plane – once again, effectively being annihilated). On the other hand, many settings state that these now entirely-generic entities are rewarded or punished for things that they did in life – even though you can’t actually tell them apart in any meaningful way and they don’t remember their mortal lives. Of course, the d20 rules also state that determined spirits can come back as revenants, that you can find and communicate with them, and so on – the usual hazards of multiple opinionated writers who aren’t consulting each other.

Most actual d20 games ignore the “petitioner” bit; what’s the point of rewarding or punishing generic blobs who have no idea of why? Why make an “afterlife” into a generic video-game extra life that will inevitably end at some point? Why seek out the ancient spirit of a long-dead king, or mighty mage, or your dead child, when all you’re going to find is a generic petitioner who knows nothing and doesn’t know you?

Fortunately, house or setting rules that change that only require changing a few sentences and have virtually no effect on the mechanics. Dead characters are usually (although hardly always) pretty much out of play in any case.

Finally, of course, we have attitudes towards death.

Now, unlike in reality, in a basic (or even setting or a house-ruled afterlife) d20 fantasy setting Death is normally no mystery. There’s no particular doubt about how it works, or the moment of death, or about personal survival in the afterlife, or anything like that. If you have serious unfinished business, or a really big grudge, or want to watch over a grandchild, or want to haunt your murderer – well, most d20 settings say that a determined spirit can find a way to do it, if only by appearing in dreams. Gods very definitely exist, and care for their followers both before and after death. People fairly often come back from death, or use astral travel to visit the planes of the dead, meet some dead relatives, and tour the place a bit.

That means that the fear of death is mostly based on anticipated regret – “there were still things I wanted to do! I’m not ready!” – rather than fear of personal extinction and the unknown, or even of punishment (gods who punish people who follow their philosophies don’t tend to get many followers). That’s also why d20 worlds tend to have gods of the dead, protectors of the dead, judges and advocates of the dead, psychopomps who guide the dead, and gods who just like to kill people – but they generally don’t have a true “god of death” or any version of a “grim reaper” any more than they have gods of “losing your grip on tree branches”. The process is simple, automatic, and has no need for personification.

This too is good; it means that heroes who spit in the face of death, face threats with valor rather than appeasement, and who sacrifice themselves for causes knowing that they are passing into the care of their divine patrons are relatively common – rather than as rare as they are in the real world.

That makes for an exciting and dramatic game – and is, given the rules of the setting the action takes place in – entirely realistic. It’s hard to ask for more out of a rules system than that.

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting. I just “finished” a series on Hit Points where I assert a 1-to-1 correlation between hit point damage and measurable bodily harm. I was dealing specifically with humans, not apparently-incorporeal Elementals, which makes a difference. I may have to come back and chew on this.

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