|Art @Linay Art|
So for the longest time in D&D, one of my biggest grievances and little nitpicks is about the Constitution score, mostly, in how it grants extra health. There's obviously nothing wrong with it on the surface, it makes logical sense and gives an extra little bonus for your character. Some people will naturally be tougher then others and have more or less hit points; and in a dangerous place like a dungeon having a higher Constitution score and more hit points is a useful metric to have. Plus, latter games and editions added on to this with saving throws; especially against disease or poison, as Fortitude saves are among the most common kinds to be introduced if we're using a stat based metric.
However, I have a few issues with it purely based on the math. Even more baffling is how it was ever implemented in the game in this metric, which is a separate topic, and every retroclone and homebrew shitbrews also continued this trend- which is the crazy part. How does nobody else see a problem with this?
The Bonus Hit Point Problem
In D&D, Hit Points are determined by dice, your hit dice. Classes tend to have different amounts of hit dice, or more commonly, different sized hit dice. Part of the fun of the game is seeing what you get- you can roll some levels and get 6 or more hit-points, which is really good, or you can get only a 1 or 2, which is still an improvement over all but feels like you're getting robbed. Your Constitution modifier grants you either more or less Hit-Points per Hit-Dice equal to the modifier. Meaning if you have +1 CON, you'll get an extra Hit-Point every level or so.
It's fine. It's simple, easy enough, though I don't think it's as elegant as it could be. But here is where the problems crop up, at least for me.
Now of course, disclaimer, "balance" doesn't matter in a TTRPG. We get it. But there's an issue where one stat is SO much more desirable then any other. If you had an option to swap two stats at character generation, you'd be a fool not to put your highest stat in Con, regardless of what character you are playing. Obviously, that's powergaming, but you can't fault people for it based on RAW.
Think about it. While other modifiers grant bonuses in other areas; they have a rough equivalency. +1 Strength grants +1 to hit, which is a 5% increased chance to hit. Dex grants AC, which is once again a +5% chance for opponents to miss on an attack. Even the strongest character classes, Barbarians or Fighters, who have hit dice of d8 or higher, are still getting a much higher benefit out of hit points in terms of raw numbers out of their maximum potential health; a +10% increase to total hit points or more. And this is only going on maximum rolls; average rolls of 4.5 for a d8 or 5.5 for a d10 are actually being improved by 20% or higher, granting a MUCH bigger benefit for the same random chance to have a higher Con or a higher Strength or Dexterity with random character stat generation.
With that said; I am a very strong believer in random stat generation. Rolling 3d6 down the line to determine your character's attributes is fun to me, and my preferred method of both GMing and generating my own characters. Given the OSR scene, the fact you can sometimes get weak or strong characters is part of the fun of the game and this method is popular as well, at least when compared to more standardized stat arrays for 5e homebrew and such. Of course, this is mitigated by high character lethality, low impact stats, and strong linear advancement in classes meaning a bad stat spread isn't necessarily a huge deal- and if your character dies anyway, you can just make a new one lickety split.
But once again, you can't tell me that you aren't more disappointed from getting a bad CON roll then any other stat. And there is a second problem with the above; rolling for stats before choosing a class.
How I tend to do character generation is to roll for stats, then select a class that fits. This is the most fun method for myself; and I assume a very standard practice. While I can't be 100% certain, the fact that OD&D and other retroclones have minimum stat roll requirements to play the more "special" classes like Elves or Paladins and the like indicate to me this is how people tend to do it. This is the optimal method of random character generation; because you have to roll your stats randomly but you get to pick a class, giving you a strategic choice based on your roll. Part of this is the understanding that, while you aren't necessarily trying to minmax, you are going to pick something that fits your stats and attributes. If you have high strength, probably a Fighter. High wisdom? Probably a Cleric. Intelligence but low physical stats? MU for sure. I like the implied character background and generation of this method; almost implying your character is choosing their career based on what they are naturally good and gifted with; or feeling a sort of implied backstory and baggage that affects your characters starting attributes. Low Dex and High Con can means somebody is fat and out of shape; an ex-merchant down on his luck, or a cloistered monk thrust out into the wider world- these are great character concepts made by just two rolls of the dice created in about fifteen seconds.
But here comes the problem- what kind of character should you make if you get a good CON roll? In my mind, you would mentally imagine someone tough; and in an effort to contribute to the team and party- you'd pick a roll that benefits the most from this. So a frontline Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Dwarf, Cleric; which is great, because these characters thematically fit what you'd imagine a high Constitution, beefy or stocky warrior would fit. But once again, here's the problem; if you pick a class with a big Hit-Dice, you are actively getting less benefit from your Constitution score. Your d10 or d8 hit dice is objectively and unquestionably less impacted by a +1 flat bonus then a d4 or d6. In fact, its so badly designed, that you are actively encouraged to play a class with a big HD if you have a low Con score. It is objectively the most optimal and best choice to play a Fighter if you have an average stat spread but terrible Constitution. And conversely, who benefits the most from a big Con score? The Wizard. The guy with the smallest hit dice; to the extent that a +2 Con score is going to pretty much double his maximum hit points.
This is one of the most ass-backwards tabletop mechanics and things I have every encountered. I figure most people just never give it much serious thought; because it drives me up a wall. Once again, it's not necessary to have everything in a game be perfectly designed, balanced, or every playstyle given some kind of benefit- bonus hit points is simple enough, but it's just so bad. It feels like an incorrect rule; something dreamed up and then tossed away after the most preliminary play testing before put to paper. And yet despite this, this is how D&D works from the first editions to now, how Swords & Wizardry works, how LotFP works, and how all these other retroclones work. I feel like a conspiracy theorist noticing the big lie that all the sheeple just consume without thought or question. What the hell is going on?!
Sidenote: Obviously, the above doesn't matter if all characters have the same size hit die. I know there are some retroclones like this; in which case hit points remain a simple bonus for everyone, with the classes most exposed to danger and/or classes that get the most hit dice total being the ones who benefit the most from it. This solves the issue handily- but is the minority.
But anyways; enough whining. Now its time for the solutions.
New Constitution Modifier Benefits
You can see my attempts to change this in various rule-posts I've made on this blog before. Personally, I don't much care about sharing my homebrew rules anymore, mostly because actually playing a campaign is a treat at this point- and I feel like sharing rule fixes and ideas is basically wasted space. Everybody already has their own game or their own homebrew they like to tweak- I'm not going to be changing any minds with my own rants and solutions. But frankly? I hate the Con score bonus hit point thing so much, I'm gonna do it anyway.
Oh, and all of these assume a relatively wide spread of Con modifier ranges. Most games go from +1 to maybe +3 at a score of 18 or -3 at a score of 3, which are really uncommon at character generation. I like to use a maximum spread of +2 to -2 at character generation for stats. While most characters will be about the same and have a lot of +0 stats, a few will be exemplary enough for attribute bonuses to actually be noticeable.
Solution 1 - Rerolling
Whenever you roll your Hit Dice, roll it a number of extra times equal to your Constitution modifier, positive or negative. Then, take the highest number (if positive) or lowest (if negative). This means if you have a -1 Con score, roll your HD twice and take the lowest one. If your Con is +2, roll three Hit Dice and take the biggest.
This method bounds HP to a certain range based on the character's class or Hit-Dice size. So a level 3 Fighter with a Hit Dice of d10 is going to have between 3 and 30 Hit Points no matter what their stats are like. This is useful for getting a general feel for total resources a character could have, regardless of stats. Secondly, it makes any permanent hit points gained or lost through various magical means or equipment feel more "supernatural" and impactful, because it breaks them out of the very concrete range of hit points anyone could have. Finally; it also has the benefit of making more "swingy" (bigger) hit dice being more benefited from this, as it adds some consistency. You won't get as many results of 1 or 2 on a big ten sided dice, making characters with good CON scores have higher and more constant gains per level. While I'm not gonna do the math on this one, I get the feeling that the Fighter with the big hit dice will enjoy having a high Con score but be even more crippled by having a low Con then maybe he should be; at least compared to something like the MU. I get the feeling they'd mathematically shake out to be the same, but somebody with -2 Con may as well just play an MU and go up by one hit point every level and just be happy with that. Feels fair enough.
The problems with this solution? Firstly; it makes Con way too important. Arguably even worse then just a flat +1 or -1 added to your health scores. We're far and away from a small little +5% bonus to hit or avoid damage. Secondly? It's arguably way too good at first level too, because instead of just getting +1 or +2 to your piddly starting health pool; you now have two chances to max it out. While the potential maximum isn't as high as a flat bonus, you're basically never going to have characters starting with really low and dangerous hit point values. (But the opposite is true for those with negative Con, who now get the worse of their only two hit dice rolls!). I used to use this solution for an old homebrew, but decided to change it by just giving everyone a minimum starting Hit-Point value. So no more 1 hit point Magic Users, you'll start with 2 Hit Points no matter what, so take the shitty Con score and live with it. It's not that bad.
Also; perhaps most obviously, this entire rule becomes totally and completely unusable if characters can gain or lose their ability score values during a campaign. What are you going to do if someone finds a +1 Belt of Constitution and now their modifier goes up by one? Are you going to have them reroll all their Hit Dice and take the new one if its higher? Remember the last individual hit-dice roll they made and have them redo it with an extra roll? No way. that's a nightmare. At least the bonus HP per HD is easy to adjust on the fly; just multiplying the Con modifier with the characters HD, positive or negative, and adjusting the total accordingly, which is probably the reason the oldschool games actually use it.
Solution 2 - Starting HP Total Only
Your Con bonus adds or subtracts from your total maximum hit points, but only once. So at first level, if you have +1 Con, you get +1 Hit Points and that's it. If you increase your CON score later, you get +1 more max HP, or -1 less, and so on. You just adjust your Hit Point total by your CON modifier, it's that simple.
There is only two issues with it. Firstly, it may be hard to remember 100% what your actual Hit Point total is. You may increase your Constitution score and gain a point, then level up, then the DM hits your character with a curse that reduces your maximum HP by -1d6 points until you slay the Wampus Cat, and then you lose the magic item that granted you that CON bonus, so now you gotta reduce it by one again. I'm sure you can keep track of it all with some proper notetaking, but it seems like it could slide around and be annoying. At the speed of how Tabletop Games run at however, I don't see this being an issue.
Second; it feels a little underwhelming, especially if you're coming from more classic retroclones. Everyone has been gaining all the bonus Hit Points per level, now it's just once period. That could feel like a serious downgrade if you've playing characters with high Con before and now feel much weaker. However, overall, this change makes the Constitution score more in line with other stats, but doesn't fix the problem of Constitution being THE number one stat overall at character generation. It also doesn't pair up with the HD gain of the various classes in the game, meaning you won't have anyone picking to be a Fighter just because they rolled high Con, but at least it isn't backwards like the old method. This also means that your bonus HP from your Con score becomes less and less relevant as time goes on- actually making the Constitution score less "endgame viable" then Strength, Dex, or another stat. However it's worth noting that most characters who use stat modifiers (like a Fighter with a high strength score) are also gaining bonuses from their class along the way; meaning that +1 from a high Strength score matters a lot less when they have two attacks per round with +3 To-Hit at a certain level then at first level, when it was the only thing changing how likely they were to win a combat encounter. I don't think it's necessarily bad that one stat gets more or less valuable as time goes on; after all Charisma often grants a bonus to starting gold which only matters once in the whole campaign, but it's a fair point to consider.
Solution 3 - Percentile
You gain or lose maximum hit points by a percentage; based on the Con score. So if you have a +1 Con, you gain +5% or +10% maximum hit points. This solution is simple, though math heavy, and puts it in line with all the other stats in the game. If +1 Strength gives you +5% chance to hit, then +1 Con gives you 5% maximum hit points. This is the one I ended up using for these old rules; but it was kind of a last second band-aid choice that I didn't really stick with.
Two problems; first, given the nature of randomly rolled stats, this solution could potentially do a lot more or little to two separate characters just given what they rolled. If you're using round up or round down is an extra point of confusion. Given how small this bonus could actually be, an overage or mistake could easily cost or gain an entire extra hit point and end up making a big difference; but only mathematically speaking. The actual effect on the game is very, very minimal. Even at a 10% bonus, most OSR/DIY characters aren't going to get over 30 to 40 Hit Points total, so it acts as a small bonus that can maybe absorb one small attack. Of course, even one hit point could mean the difference between life and death, so this feels about right for how Con score bonus should work.
The second problem is ease of use. Most people are only going to write down one hit point total for their character. This will mean it will include their bonus Hit Points in their character's HP total. So if you gain or lose Constitution later, do you take the entire total, which includes the bonus hit points, and use 5 or 10% of that to determine the next increment or bonus of hit points? Like if you go from Con +1 to Con +2 and get +5% bonus hit points, you're not just calculating your character's base Hit-Points into the new total, but including the previous bonus Hit-Points into the equation, which could easily round up to an extra +1 hit points based on how you want to round it out. It's not just a +5% from going up a modifier tier, but a +5% of another +5% from before. I wouldn't even trust myself not to fuck up this math, much less other people I'm playing with. Without really good notekeeping, this could become a serious problem. While most campaigns don't see characters changing their attribute modifiers that much; if someone finds a magic item or catches leprosy or something and the setting is adjorned for the week; nobody is going to remember exactly how much hit points they actually rolled for their level when they added it on to their character sheet as opposed to how much the Con modifier gave them. The only way to solve this would be to write the Con modifier's bonus hit points as a separate amount; at which point the player is basically keeping track of two health pools and doing twice the work for minimal gains in the gameplay department. It's just a hassle.
Solution 4 - Soak
Your Constitution modifier grants a number of temporary hit points or damage reduction applies to the first hit you take in combat. Meaning if you have a Con modifier of +1, you take -1 damage from the first hit you take in combat. If you have a Con modifier of -2, however, you'd take 2 more damage from the first hit in combat.
This solution makes Constitution a much more fight-centric stat, and also pairs well with Flesh/Grit systems, as while Con itself is your "Flesh" stat, Grit could be boosted by especially tough characters. It also makes Con very beneficial to fighters, who not only have the most maximum HP but also will take less per combat, multiplied by the number of times they get to use this bonus. Characters with poor Con, on the other hand, will be in an even more perilous position because of this.
Second idea; instead, you could make your Con modifier added to healing gained on something akin to a second wind or Short Break mechanic. In a more action-focused game, a Short Break could restore 1d6 Hit Points to every party member (or just their class HD), which you add your Constitution modifier to every time you roll it. This has the knock on effect of, once again, making Constitution once again more important for low maximum HP classes then higher ones, and also makes it more of a sustain stat as opposed to making high Con characters feel actually tougher to kill, which is arguably the only and entire purpose of the stat in the first place.
Solution 5 - Armor Class
Your Constitution Modifier is added to your Armor Class. Dexterity no longer increases or decreases your Armor Class; instead, it's Constitution.
This is the easiest one, and the one I went with. It also makes people the most mad. Yeah, I know. Here's the thing; Dexterity is already a great score with a lot of uses. Stealth, Ranged Attacks, Finesse weapons if your game has those, prime requisites for Thieves, and is probably the stat called upon the most for random roll-under or "DM looks at your character sheet to see if your stunt works usually" kind of calls. Dexterity is already well represented enough. Plus, making Con the AC bonus instantly puts it in line in usefulness with Strength/Dex/other stats, giving a roughly 5% increased chance to avoid damage.
Now you may be saying; but what about my dexterity fighter!? What about my monk, my survivability, my light armor user archetypes! And those are fair criticisms of this change. But most of the above is based on roleplay, equipment choice, and character class- having a high dexterity doesn't let you attack multiple times and only increases chances for enemies to miss slightly, and rarely impacts things like dodging spells (only indirectly; which still works within this ruleset). Second, by using this method, you could decouple the idea of a fast or agile character away from AC- AC could become the mostly toughness and damage-absorption related statistic; as in "taking hits but not really getting hurt by them", and Dexterity fully moved into the heroic swashbuckling, thieving, and agility-based conceptual space. For example; instead of having Dex grant AC, just using certain weapons like rapiers increase it instead, which already fits the type but doesn't make Fighters (who are already most affected by having bad or good stats) need Dexterity in addition to Strength and Constitution to feel "powerful" in their role. (Though as we've seen above, Constitution already is the least useful on them, if we go by the rules everyone else seems to use). In my mind, I'd prefer a high Dex rolled character to want to go towards being a Thief over wanting to be a Fighter when deciding on your class- which was part of the purpose for this entire change in the first place.
If you really, really still want Dexterity to be directly useful for combat; make Dexterity a bonus To-Hit, Strength to damage (melee only? melee and bows? You pick.) and Constitution a bonus to Armor-Class. That way you have the trifecta of useful physical stats; damage, accuracy, and toughness all in one place.
I almost put this on a Vagueposting for how long it got, but it certain fits into the Rant corner. Either way, if you stuck with it this long, thanks for reading.