Hit Point Creep in Dungeons and Dragons

Over the years a number of Dungeons and Dragons people who have spoken out on the issue of Level Creep (the gradual evolution of Dungeons and Dragons so that more and more levels were available).

Tim Kask speaks in the video below on the topic:

So in the video Tim Kask describes how in the early days of D&D the level cap was 10th level and when PCs got to that level they usually retired, built a keep and they made new characters.

When 1st Edition AD&D came along the upper level was considered to be 20, but in theory people could just keep going up levels.

In 2nd Edition AD&D, it was still 20, and again in theory PCs could go beyond that, but few did.

In 3rd Edition D&D, 4th Edition, 5th Edition, still 20...

Meanwhile other competing games, including online games, just went nuts with level creep.

eg. World of Warcraft started with a max of 60. The Burning Crusade raised the cap to 70, Wrath of the Lich King raised it to 80, Pandaria raised it to 90. Eventually it was raised to 100.

So while other games have gone nuts with level creep, D&D has stuck to the whole "level 20" is the normal maximum - possibly because of the role dice play in the game and the symbolism of d20 dice. 20 just seems like a nice perfect round number and it has become tradition to stick with that.

Thus level creep really isn't a problem for D&D. It has stayed at level 20 for decades and will likely continue to do so just for tradition and the symbolism of d20 dice.

So what about Hit Point Creep?

So this is a thing that as both a DM and as a player, well, it rather annoys me. I shall explain why later, but first let me illustrate what Hit Point Creep does.

Here is the average hit points for a wizard with a 14 Constitution in 1st/2nd Edition AD&D at levels 1, 5, 10, 15 and 20:

4, 16, 29, 34, 39.

Now here is the average hit points for a wizard with a 14 Constitution in 3rd/3.5 at the same levels:

6, 24, 47, 70, 93.

And finally, here is the average hit points for a wizard with a 14 Constitution in 5th Edition, same levels:

8, 32, 62, 92, 122.

Now I chose wizard and gave him/her a 14 Constitution for a reason, because it perfectly demonstrates the effects of Hit Point Creep while highlighting some of the fundamental changes in the rules in various editions with respect to hit points. Here are some observations:
  • Between 1st Edition and 5th Edition, the hit points at 1st level effectively doubled. This is due to the effect of 14 Constitution granting more hit points in 3rd/4th/5th editions, but also because wizards in 5th Edition get d6s instead of d4s for hit dice.
  • The hit point increase from 1st/2nd to 3rd/3.5 effectively increased by 50% at lower levels, but more than doubled at higher levels. This is because wizards now gained d4 HD plus their Con bonus at higher levels, whereas in 1st/2nd they only gained a single hit point when they went up a level - it was designed that way originally to keep wizards squishy even at higher levels.
  • The difference between 1st/2nd and 5th sees hit points doubled at the lower levels, and roughly tripled at the higher levels. Part of this is because in 5th Edition, so-called "average hit points" are rounded up and not a true average. On a d6, the true average is 3.5, but in 5th Edition that isn't normally rolled - you just take 4 instead.
So what effect does this have?

Well, wizards are supposed to be weaklings of the party. They are meant to be squishy and are supposed to:
  • Avoid direct combat / melee.
  • Be careful about traps and let others go first.
  • Play smart / carefully in order to stay alive.
 Having more hit points effectively does the following:
  • Allows wizards to go into melee, becoming more like fighters.
  • Charge through traps.
  • Can do lots of stupid things that would normally get a wizard killed.
 So what you end up with is players doing things with their wizard that makes them behave more like a fighter, like a careless barbarian, and various unrealistic things for a character that is meant to be squishy.

And this annoys me both as a player and as a DM, because I know wizards are meant to be played in a careful and cautious way. So seeing players having their wizard charge into danger, as a DM, I don't pull my punches like other DMs might do. Instead I just have them roll their saving throws as normal and they take damage as normal.

But inside my head I am thinking: "Ha! That will teach them!"

And as a player, when I am playing my necromancer Soljargon I play him properly. Like a wizard should be played. Smart. Carefully. With the expectation that he could get injured or die if he makes the wrong move.

And other old school players and DMs recognize that playing style - and new players presumably learn from example, learning how to play a wizard in a smart way.

Hit Point Creep doesn't just effect wizards however... It has effected all the classes, and monsters too.

Damage, in some cases, has also gone up over time too, with spells and weapons, so to some extent it is all relative. But in some cases damage has remained a constant, which is a problem by itself.

Lets take the classic Fireball spell for example.

1st Edition - Fireball was a 10' radius, 1d6 per level, with no maximum.

2nd Edition - Fireball was a 20' radius, 1d6 per level, to a maximum of 10d6.

3rd Edition - Fireball, as 2nd Edition, but with metamagic feats that allows wizards and sorceror's to increase the damage.

4th Edition - Is blasphemy. Lets not even discuss it.

5th Edition - Fireball deals 8d6 damage to a 20' radius, but the PC has the option to increase damage by using higher level spell slots to cast the spell.

So with Fireball, what you see here over time is that the spell has actually gone DOWN in damage, not up. In 1st Edition it was an awesome damage dealing spell, even though it had a small radius. In 2nd Edition it was made bigger in terms of area of effect, but they capped the damage at 10d6. 3rd and 5th Edition allow the possibility of increasing the damage, but ultimately by 5th Edition the standard spell has been reduced to 8d6 (normal cap) with the option to increase.

Now take the effect on enemy wizards... say a wizard duel between level 15 wizards.

In 1st Edition, the 15d6 Fireball deals an average of 52.5 points of fire damage. 26.25 on a successful saving throw. Based on the 34 hit points a Wizard with 14 Con would have, they would die if they failed their saving throw - and more than likely live if they succeeded. (Note - Wizards had very good saves vs spells in 1st/2nd Edition.)

In 2nd Edition, the 10d6 Fireball deals an average of 35.0 points of fire damage. 17.5 on a successful saving throw. The same wizard could survive a direct hit if the damage is below average, but would be burning to death if it is higher. On a successful saving throw they would be looking pretty good

In 3rd Edition, the 10d6 Fireball still only deals 35 / 17.5 fire damage, but the 15th level Wizard with 14 Con now has a pool of 70 hit points. They could get hit for max damage of 60 and still survive. With average damage they could take the hits twice, and still only be at exactly zero hit points. With successful saving throws they could possibly take 4 hits before they go down.

In 5th Edition, the 8d6 Fireball deals less damage, 28 on a failed save, 14 on a successful. The 15th level Wizard with 14 Con now has 92 hit points however. Three average hits still would not take them down, or it would take 7 Fireballs at half damage to take them down. Even if someone did up the damage using higher level Fireballs, the extra hit points basically guarantees that the wizard will be able to teleport out of danger before the final killing blow is made.

Understanding this, you might think "Oh, well, they have just made Fireball weaker over time." And while this is partially true, the biggest effect on this shift in power has been the increase in hit points.

During this time there has also been a big shift in the number of spells wizards get in general.

2nd Edition - At 15th level a Wizard gets 5 level three spells. The wizard gains that cap of 5 at level 13.

5th Edition - At 15th level a Wizard gets 3 level three spells. The wizard gains that cap of 3 at level 6 and it never increases beyond 3 level three spells.

So in the space of 4 editions, wizards went from being squishy with lots of spells (the way they are meant to be) to being either twice or thrice as tough, less spells, and their spells effectively do less damage.

Are you familiar with the term NERF?

It comes from a company named NERF that makes toys covered in foam so that little kids cannot hurt each other.

It basically sums up what has happened over time with D&D. Spells do less damage (relative to hit points), wizards (and other spellcasters) now get less spells, and hit points have increased so much that the spells are effectively NERFed.

Part of the problem I think is also resting.

In 1st/2nd Edition, characters didn't usually rest unless they actually needed to because they were really low on spells. In later editions, 3rd Edition to a lesser extent and significantly more so in 5th Edition, resting became more commonplace when PCs are down a few spells.

In 5th Edition there is now short rests and long rests, which have different effects. Both allow PCs to heal significantly, and may also allow them to get back spells / abilities during a short rest, and get back everything (all hit points, all abilities, all spells) during a long rest.

Resting therefore becomes problematic when it is used frequently, and in combination with the higher hit points and NERFed spells, it means PCs rarely get into a situation where things get tense, they are sitting on the edge of their seat because there is a real threat characters could die, etc. It happens so rarely, that as a DM it makes it difficult to make things interesting.

As a DM we can do some trickery (aka DM shenanigans) to whittle down the hit points of PCs, and if the game is balanced then it should not be too difficult to do that, in an effort to make battles more exciting.

These days when you whittle down hit points however you have to do it lots, and there is always the potential the party decides to take a short rest before fighting a big boss monster - which means all of your efforts to whittle them down were wasted.

DM Tip - Give them an opportunity to fight the boss monster solo, but with the party injured. If they wait too long however then add lots of mid-level minions (guards, mounts, extra monsters) to make the final fight more balanced and interesting. Done correctly, the PCs should take the risk of trying to take down the boss when they are injured, knowing that if they wait the boss might have allies later on. (Also, if they decided not to fight the boss and rested first instead, give the boss an escape route. Then when the fight is over and the party decides to rest, have the boss return (with full hit points) and attack them while they are resting. This way they hopefully learn their lesson, and when the next time they have an opportunity to fight a boss alone with no guards, they will take that option instead of having to go through all that nonsense.)

In my games (both my Monday Night 5th Edition game and my Friday Night 2nd Edition Game) I make an effort to keep stats balanced and lower, partially so that hit points don't become ridiculous. I have even recently given though to using the Adventurers League rules for stats, which is a relatively low point buy and I find it is very balanced. In the 2nd Edition game I find it is extremely balanced, but in 5th Edition I can definitely throw bigger traps / bigger monsters at the party and they do quite well against them.

What the 5th Edition players don't do well against is more old school traps where they don't seem to realize that it could be overcome using rope / 10 foot poles / chickens / etc. But they are learning, so that is a good sign.

eg. Last Monday one of the PCs picked up a coin. The coin burst into flames, igniting him on fire. I asked him if he lets go of the coin and he decided not to, so it burned a hole right through the palm of his hand and burnt a hole into the stone floor. His character now has a coin sized hole permanently drilled through the palm of his left hand.

So yeah. More Hit Points = Unbalancing the Game and NERFing it. But there is a solution. Just double the damage of traps at lower levels or triple the damage of traps at higher levels. ;)

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