Those of you who have read Unearthed Arcana may already be familiar with the Vitality and Wound Points System, a variant hit points system which is now freely available online. If you’re running a game in Eberron, you’d be hard pressed to find a hit point system better suited to your game. Read on to find out why.
Why Use a Variant?
The first question people usually ask when I recommend this system to them, is “Why should I use a different hit point system – what’s wrong with the current one?” A lot of people are entirely happy with the game as it is and aren’t interested in making hit points any more complicated than they have to be. My reply to this is that while the standard hit points system is well-formed as it is, the vitality and wounds system is straighforwardly better, is only slightly more complex than the standard system, is backwardly compatible and makes much more sense. On top of that, as I’ll come to explain, it fits the Eberron setting like a glove, argubly more so than any other popular setting.
While other variant hitpoint systems involve huge changes to the basic hit point mechanic, the vitality and wounds system does not. Hitting things with an axe still deals damage, and hitting things a lot still kills them. Twenty damage still means about the same thing as it does in the standard hit point system, a high Constitution score still keeps you alive and you can still survive hundred-foot falls at high level. Rest assured, the changes required are straightforward, and what’s more make a lot of sense.
Overview of the System
A full description of the vitality and wounds system is available online, but here’s a brief synopsis if you’re too busy to read all three thousands words of the system.
In the normal system, hit points are particularly abstract, and damage to them can represent a glancing blow or a serious wound depending on how many hit points you’re on at the time. Not quite so with the vitality and wound points system. Instead, your “hit points” are instead instead known as “vitality points”, and only represent your ability to avoid being meaningfully wounded by damage – dodging the brunt of attacks, parrying blows or however you want to imagine it. Once your vitality points have been depleted, any further damage is taken to your “wound points” total, which are initially equal to your Constitution score and represent your ability to take actual, serious damage before dying. Unlike vitality point damage, your character is actually hampered while having taken “wounds”, and wounds have a chance to stun the character for 1d4 rounds.
There are a few other notable changes. Critical hits no longer deal double damage, but instead deal damage directly to your wound points, making them something to be feared by whoever’s on the receiving end. Only monsters and heroic characters (those with class levels) actually receive vitality points, so commoners and farmyard animals are more vulnerable than an equally-tough player character. Vitality points, unlike regular hit points, also gradually regenerate without requiring rest.
This variant system has its advantages. For one, both DMs and players have a much better idea whether or not an attack is going to represent a serious wound to a character, so there’s not a clear line between “shrugging off damage” and “being stabbed in the chest but surviving”. For another, critical hits are always deadly, so even at high levels the characters don’t consider themselves invulnerable. In my opinion, this variant would have done well to have been supplied as default with the campaign setting, given how suspiciously well it slots in.
Why in Eberron?
Reading through the Eberron Campaign Setting you’ll find what makes Eberron different from other Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings such as Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms. It has a focus on low-level and mid-level play rather than high-level play. It has very much a swashbuckling, renaissance feel to it. High level magic is rarer, as are spellcasting characters. Enemies are more likely to be other humanoid characters rather than monsters. There’s a playable race of constructs. All of these aspects and others affect the fit the vitality and wound points system quite snugly.
Eberron, more than other settings, is geared toward low-level and mid-level play. Unlike Forgotten Realms, none of the setting’s unique races have a level adjustment and so a game has no need to start above level 1. There are remarkably few high-level NPCs in the setting, and the setting frequently reminds us that a level 1 character really is special, while a level 12 character is absolutely legendary. The entire setting is geared toward lower-level play.
With that in mind, the vitality and wounds system is one which works best at lower levels. At higher levels, the system begins to struggle when damage rolls get incredibly high and a single critical hit will easily exceed a character’s Wounds score. Many fans say that Eberron plays best at the mid-levels, around levels 4 to 14, which is before critical disintegrate really comes into play. At really low levels, the system actually helps stave off character death due to reckless players, since you’re effectively adding your Constitution score to your hit points. This is very much a good thing, since in my experience, the ease with which level 1 characters die often discourages players from starting games at level 1.
The stereotypical adventuring party features a burly dwarven fighter, an elderly bearded mage, a leather-clad halfling rogue and an armour-plated cleric. In Eberron, there’s absolutely no reason why this has to be the case, and at times it can even strain the believability of what should be a more serious, more realistic setting. Would the Church of the Silver Flame honestly have no problem with their clerics abandoning their duties for a year to steal Dhakaani heirlooms for Morgrave University?
Since vitality points don’t represent serious injury, they recover faster than hit points would, removing the requirement to build the party around a cleric as a healer. A party consisting of a fighter, a monk, a rogue and a sorcerer is now quite feasible. Alternatively, if there is a cleric in the party he no longer needs to relegate himself to the role of a hit point battery. Characters now recover one vitality point per level each hour, rather than per day as under the old hit points system. Healing is still valuable, but a healer-less party can now hold their own.
Swashing, and Sometimes Buckling
Heavy-armour fighters still have their place in Eberron, but many characters will want to get into the spirit of swashbuckling by playing a fighter, rogue or duelist whose speciality is to wield a rapier and wear light armour. If a rapier isn’t manly enough for players, they might prefer a heftier sword. In any case, civilised bladed weapons far outweigh crude blunt weapons in this system. Since critical hits are more lethal, it’s now much more important to have a high threat range than high damage. Critical hits also now ignore damage reduction, which is often the bane of nimble, lower-damage one-handed fighters.
Even one critical hit will debilitate your opponent, making the rest of the fight easier and potentially convincing him to surrender. This possibility of defeating your opponent without killing him is another aspect which can make the game both more realistic and more heroic. Formerly, your opponent could fight without penalty from maximum hitpoints down to 1HP, was dying at -1HP and was defeated but conscious at precisely 0HP – a one hitpoint margin which gets increasingly small as damage and hitpoint values rise. Now, you actually have a significant opportunity of defeating an opponent without killing him. You might make use of this opportunity to interrogate the opponent for information, or leave him alive just to prove that you’re more honourable than the villain could ever be.
Critical hits also now make every combat a danger. While you’ll probably be fighting more humans than giants and don’t have to worry so much about 30 point critical hits, you can no longer wade into a fight on the assumption that you have enough hit points to survive it. At very least, you’ll need to ask if the outcome of the fight is worth risking a crit to the wound points for. Just like in the real world, you won’t want to get into a fight unless you’re sure there’s an outcome that’s worth the risk.
Heroes Are Truly Heroic
Level 1 means something more in Eberron than it might in another setting. In Cormyr, being a level 1 wizard means that you’re a useless, inexperienced mage who couldn’t hold his own against anyone of any repute in a mageduel. In Breland, you’re a magical genius, one of an elite class of magic students whose ability places you indoubtably above the common man.
One of the potentially biggest differences with the vitality and wounds system is that NPCs who only have levels in NPC classes (adept, aristocrat, commoner, magewright and warrior) do not gain vitality points. What’s most significant about this is that a 20th level warrior has no more hit points than a first level warrior. The heroes, of course, don’t share this limitation, so they’re actually much more heroic. No high-level commoner can survive a hundred foot fall – that’s the sole domain of heroic characters like the PCs and the villains. The odds are that characters with extremely high levels in NPC classes probably don’t exist in this system – and that suits Eberron fine.
Okay, I’m Sold!
Great! Print out the Vitality and Wound Points System rules and get your players to add an extra field to their character sheets. If you’re not already convinced, try it anyway for at least one game session and see if your players like it.
Implementing this system does require some changes to fit an Eberron game, other than the ones already listed. You may discover more as you play.
With all NPCs and monsters you use or create, you need to keep the vitality and wound points system in mind. Usually this does not require much conversion. However, it’s worth noting that the Toughness feat, which a lot of monsters have, adds 3 to wound points instead of hit points. Undead NPCs also don’t have to worry about damage.
Eberron has a higher instance of NPCs who have only NPC class levels, or who have a mixture of PC class and NPC class levels. The typical Aurum Concordian, for example, is a 5th level aristocrat with 27HP, who drops to 12 wound points. In cases like this, you have to choose between letting the NPCs be weaker, or giving them back their vitality points. Usually, if they are intended to be a challenge to the PCs you can give them their missing vitality points back, just like you can give certain NPCs action points.
Warforged are lucky enough to have a 25% chance to ignore the new, more lethal critical hits, in which case they take the damage to vitality as usual. Although warforged are constructs, having a Constitution score means that they track wounds and vitality the same as any other race. They still become fatigued when they take wound damage, as this status represents a serious injury and warforged still feel pain. However, since they can’t bleed, they automatically become stable when their wound points are reduced to zero. At this point they are conscious but disabled, with any further damage renders the warforged unconscious and inert, and the warforged is killed when this “further damage” exceeds his full Wounds total.