This is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts where I share some of the house rules, tweaks and interpretations that I use when running Classic D&D. In my, admittedly limited years DMing, I've come up with a few things on my own and borrowed others from the more experienced players in my group, and even adopted a few things I found on other blogs and forums online; I'll try and give proper credit where due in those cases. I don't pretend to be a master of the game, so I welcome any feedback, criticism or suggestions you might have on implementing these ideas in a game.
I notice that many later editions of D&D and its variants, either officially or as an assumed unwritten rule, don't treat 0 hit points as dead, as it is written in the Basic Rules. Systems seem to vary on what negative hit point total means actual death, but 0 or lower HP just seems to mean the PC (but oddly enough, not the NPCs or monsters, go figure) is simply unconscious and bleeding, sure to die if help is not given by a comrade quickly.
The Hackmaster RPG (4th edition, the AD&D 1st ed. "clone" parody) takes a different approach, granting every PC, NPC and monster a HP "kicker", 10 extra hit points for everyone. While I don't like shaking up the rules to that extent, and further dragging out low level combat as 1st level PCs and low HD monsters literally hack each other to pieces attempting to deal 14 to 118 points of damage, I do like that at least the system is fair to the DM's cast of characters and creatures, <b>everybody</b> gets the 10 bonus points.
The compromise system I came up with follows the basic idea of the 0 HP means unconscious rules, while incorporating a little of the Hackmaster rule spirit as well. Here's my proposed Death's Door rule:
At 0 HP, a PC or NPC is unconscious, and dying from bleeding, even if that bleeding is internal, from blunt melee weapons. The character will lose 1 HP per game round unless healing is given by an ally through magic or successful use of a healing skill, if you use those options. If the character's HP total falls below -(1+CON Adj)*, he is dead.
If the character is returned to 1 HP or higher through healing, he must make a saving throw vs. Death or permanently lose 1 point of CON ability score. This loss of ability score does <b>not</b> retroactively affect the character's hit point total, but will affect future HP gained at level up if the characters CON score adjustment changes.
That's for PCs and "named" NPCs, the DM's cast of characters that are more than just bystanders or riffraff using the Normal Human, Elf, Dwarf, etc monster descriptions. Monsters do not gain the death's door option, they are still dead at 0 HP, but instead, they get a 1 HP per HD kicker, always rounded up. So a Kobold or Goblin gets 1 extra hit point, while a 10 HD Dragon gets 10 extra HP. I think this balances things out ok without forcing the DM to keep track of half a dozen or more unconscious and dying monsters during an encounter.
* As shown on page 36 of the Basic Set, characters with a high Constitution score get an adjustment to their HP. This is the ability score adjustment I'm talking about. +1 for a score of 13-15, +2 for 16-17 or +3 for a score of 18 or higher. A character with a 17 CON can therefore fall to -4 (1+ +3 con adj) HP before actually dying. Negative Con. adj for a low ability score are ignored for this purpose.