Here is the system I currently use in both my Labyrinth Lord and S&W White Box games regarding character hit points, death, and dying:
- 0 hp = unconscious for 1d6 turns, will revive with 1 hp
- -1 to -9 hp = save vs. death or die, successful save means 0hp (as above)
- -10 or lower = immediate death, no save
I allow “binding wounds” which is a catch-all for bandaging, drinking water (or something stronger to buck things up), catching breath, rest, and just general regathering of wits. This heals 1d3 hit points, takes 5 minutes, and must be completed within 1 turn of the end of combat. This means that if binding isn’t started within five minutes of the end of combat, it’s forfeited. This allows a bit of “securing the area” or retreat (if necessary). Only damage suffered in that particular combat can be healed by binding.
An unconscious character may have his wounds bound by someone else, which revives him in 5 minutes with 1hp. No further binding for that battle allowed for that character, and the third party who revived him cannot bind his own wounds.
Anyone can bind wounds. I figure every adventurer is either a bit of a combat medic or learns pretty fast.
For recovery, I allow up to 1d3 hp healed per night, depending on conditions. For instance:
- While camping:
- Fire AND bedroll: 1d3 hp
- Fire OR bedroll: 1d2 hp
- Neither fire or bedroll: 1 hp
This is open to a wide range of on-the-spot modifiers. Camping with a bedroll during a violent thunderstorm may only allow 1hp recovery. Sleeping in a fine bed after a filling meal and a hot bath may allow for more.
I rule that monsters and non-key NPCs are generally dead a 0 hit points.
This system seems to work pretty well in play. PCs are still quite mortal, but the odds of survival when reduced below zero aren’t terrible. We used to rule that failing the below zero save meant a character was “dying” and would survive for 1 turn before expiring. Only magical healing could revive them, though someone binding their wounds “stabilized” them and allowed for another saving throw. This was a bit cumbersome and not quite lethal enough, so we ditched it.
On a Swords & Wizardry forum thread discussing death and dying, Grim mentioned that he felt if he let characters go below zero and live, he’d have to do the same for monsters. I don’t feel that way at all these days, though at one time I did.
I have no problem with monsters having different rules than PCs. NPC wizards don’t need to follow the rules or spell progressions of PC magic-users if something else will make the adventure better, and in a similar vein I don’t feel that monsters always need to play by the same rules that PCs do.
Though I’m no longer afraid to kill of PCs, I don’t mind giving them a slightly-better-than-normal chance of survival.