Death and Dying

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.

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7 Responses to Death and Dying

  1. Ryan says:

    I think these rules would have served our S&W game well. Should the campaign pick up, I will suggest them to our intrepid DM.

    I also agree that monsters and PCs do not have to have the same rules. After all, in older iterations of the game, monsters did not have ability scores or levels, did they?

    Good work, as always.

  2. bat says:

    Well, it depends if you have a really cool monster or not. I use the method I mentioned for characters, but not for monsters, as those who keep the dead would be working overtime.

    I love that image from the Seventh Seal, by the way. Awesome movie and that iconic still is beautiful and obviously is one frame that captures the idea behind the entire film.

  3. Ainatan says:

    In my campaign when characters or even monsters go below 0 hit points, I roll 1d6 to see in how many rounds they will die. I don’t tell the players the result, but I note it on a paper. When I roll a 6 I roll again and add to the number of rounds, and keep adding if 6 keep coming.

    I also roll a save vs. death. If they win they don’t fall unconscious, but will die eventualy in 1d6 rounds unless they do something.

    I like this rules because it create nice dramatic moments and the most important: the players don’t know this rule, i just describe them what’s going on.

    • Ryan says:


      I like that rule as well. I like the idea that players don’t know when a fallen comrade might die… adds to the tension. Well done.

    • Kilgore says:

      Though I don’t use the “dying” rule in my game any longer and simply allow players to roll their own saving throw vs. death if they go below 0, one thing I keep a bit of a mystery is how long the unconscious characters will be out. I roll the 1d6 turns but don’t tell them the result.

      If they ask, I may give a clue (“they seem close to coming around…“) but they’re often left wondering if they should wait for the fighter to awaken or if they need to drag him out and call off the day’s exploring.

    • Kilgore says:

      Actually, I think I like the idea of piling on for rolls of 6. I may have to use that when I determine how long characters are unconscious.

  4. Ainatan says:

    There are only 2 states for characters in combat, one is alive/fighting and the other is uncounscious/dying/dead. I wanted to create a third one, fighting/dying.
    That’s why in my house rule there is a chance for the character to stay up and fighting even with a few rounds to live. The character can chose to tend for his wounds or keep fighting.
    The rule was used only once so far, so I still don’t know what problems it could create.

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