A common interpretation from the DMG is that a creature brought to -4 hit points from a single blow is dead. A careful examination shows that interpretation incorrect.
When a character reaches 0 hit points, they’re dead. It’s in the PHB, p. 34: “These hit points represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed.” and p. 105: “Damage is meted out in hit points. If any creature reaches 0 or negative hit points, it is dead.” That same page also says “A typical man-at-arms can take about 5 hit points of damage before being killed.” In the DMG Examples, Arlanni, with 8 hit points, takes 10 points of damage and dies. Balto, with 2 hit points left, takes 5 hit points of damage, and dies. From the dragon entry in the MM p. 30, “Saving throws indicate that each takes 44, 88, and 44 hit points damage respectively. All three [L4 Fighter/L6 MU, L7 Fighter, L9 Thief] char and die.”
Yet the DMG Glossary defines Hit Points as “The number of points of damage a creature can sustain before death (or optionally, coma), reflecting the creature’s physical endurance, fighting experience, skill, or luck” and Death as “when a creature’s hit points reach 0 (or optionally, –10).” Yet the extended DMG section “Zero Hit Points” —with 0 hit points resulting in unconsciousness—isn’t listed as optional (only a subsection within). Wait?!? Death isn’t at 0 hit points?
AD&D lore points:
- The PHB was released before the DMG; rules from the DMG override the PHB (and the MM, published earlier still).
- The PHB occasionally tells the players things that aren’t quite right (in the early world of AD&D where the players weren’t expected to also know/have memorized the DMG).
- The examples in the DMG almost always contradict the actual rules as written. Very helpful.
- The DMG Glossary was developed prior to the rest of the publication; entries are often inconsistent with the actual rules, e.g., holy water vs poison, “N-PC”, list combat.
The DMG defines that a creature doesn’t die at 0 hit points. Instead, they lose consciousness upon reaching 0 HP (entering a coma), and die upon reaching –10.
The concept of negative hit points was introduced early on with the Boar and Bear in the MM:
- Wild Boar: The boar will fight for 2-5 melee rounds after reaching 0 to –6 hit points but dies immediately at –7 or greater damage.
- Giant Boar: will fight for 1-4 melee rounds after reaching 0 to –10 hit points but die immediately upon reaching –11 or more hit points.
- Warthog: will continue to fight for 1-2 melee rounds after reaching 0 to –5 hit points but at –6 or greater damage dies immediately.
- The brown and cave bears will continue to fight for 1-4 melee rounds after reaching 0 to –8 hit points. At –9 or greater damage, they are killed immediately.
In those early cases, specific creatures function at negative hit points, instantly dying only upon reaching a specific negative threshold. Per the DMG, other creatures fall unconscious at 0 hit points, and die at –10 hit points. For later examples, UA further extends the ability to function under negative hit points to the Cavalier, although limited to “rest, bind wounds and seek further healing”. The Tarrasque is the MM2 late addition, slain only if reduced to -30 or fewer hit points (and a wish for its death).
Zero Hit Points
That brings us to the section in the DMG labeled “Zero Hit Points”. If you’re in the camp that 0 hit points equal dead, then you’re done right there. This section—not labeled as optional—discusses how, in 1e AD&D, 0 hit points does not equate to death.
Introducing death at –10 hit points (characters more specifically) reduces PC mortality. In the vast majority of cases, PCs have a few rounds when other party members can bind their wounds and prevent their death. For low-level characters, this is (quite literally) a life-saver.
The “Zero Hit Points” section covers four key points:
- When any creature is brought to 0 hit points it is unconscious.
- In each of the next succeeding rounds 1 additional (negative) point will be lost until –10 is reached and the creature dies.
- Any character brought to 0 (or fewer) hit points and then revived will remain in a coma (e.g., still unconscious) for 1-6 turns.
- If any creature reaches a state of –6 or greater negative points before being revived, this could indicate scarring or the loss of some member.
All well and good, except for two key problems:
(a) doesn’t specify the outcome if a creature is damaged (“brought to”) less than 0 from damage. (a) could be interpreted as either:
- “When a creature is brought to 0 hit points it is only unconscious” (so a creature brought to –1 HP from a blow is dead).
- “When a creature is brought to 0 hit points or lower it is unconscious” (e.g., a creature brought to –1 HP from a blow is unconscious).
We can resolve (a) directly from the Glossary: Death as “when a creature’s hit points reach 0 (or optionally, –10). If 0 isn’t death, 0 to –9 is unconscious, and –10 is death. (c) also points out that characters brought to 0 or fewer hit points can be revived (so clearly not quite dead). UA’s Death’s Door spell works against unconscious creatures at –1 to –9 HP.
A creature at 0 to –9 HP is unconscious, no matter how they got there.
(a) more completely includes: “… 0 hit points (optionally as low as –3 hit points if from the same blow which brought the total to 0) it is unconscious”—a lot more complicated! There are several ways to parse this optional section:
- If you mistakenly treated (a) as “only 0 hit points” you might read the optional section as (a) as, “When any creature is brought as low as –3 hit points in a single blow the creature is unconscious, otherwise it’s dead” (inferring a blow decreasing hit points to –4 or worse means death).
BUT (more accurately), the optional section of (a) can be read as
- “When any creature is brought as low as –3 hit points from a single blow, it is unconscious. Otherwise they’re conscious until they reach –3 hit points” (e.g., for an injury resulting in 0 hit points they could be conscious for 2 more rounds before reaching –3 and passing out), providing time to bind their own wounds.
There is the UA cavalier text: “unlike members of other classes … When a negative number of hit points is reached, the cavalier does not become unconscious”. The direct implication is that other classes do become unconscious at negative hit points, consistent when not considering the optional -3 HP rule.
If –4 hit points meant death, the Cavalier text would read, “When a negative number of hit points is reached, the cavalier does not die, but cannot further attack and must rest, bind wound, and seek further healing.” Dragon magazine #148 revises the cavalier, and in doing so defines negative hit points for other classes: “Ability to function at negative hit points: This is another idea that is hard to justify. Cavaliers will be unconscious at 0 to –9 hp and dead at –10 hp, as with other classes.”
Despite the fact that -3 defines (optionally) when unconsciousness occurs, not when death occurs, there’s the persistent argument that a single blow taking a PC to –4 kills them. Does how you reach –4 hit points matter? If a creature reaches –4 HP from a single blow, is the creature dead at –4 instead of a creature which reaches –4 hit points by bleeding at –1 HP / round?
There are a number of ways to reach negative hit points: a) a blow causing more damage than the creature has hit points (taking the creature directly to negative hit points), b) a blow resulting in 0 hit points, and losing 1 HP per round, c) Pummeling can bring a PC to 0, and then more damage can be inflicted extending the duration of unconsciousness. With THREE different ways a PC can reach negative hit points, which makes more sense: That –4 hit points is sometimes dead, and sometimes not? Or that –10 (or lower) is dead (as supported in the Glossary and in the section entitled “Zero Hit Points”)—all other negative states are unconscious.
Are there further references on damage that could help support that definition?
- DMG: When any creature is brought to 0 hit points
- DMG: Any character brought to 0 (or fewer) hit points and then revived will remain in a coma for 1 -6 turns.
- DMG: If any creature reaches a state of –6 or greater negative points
- DMG: [Death] occurs when a creature’s hit points reach 0 (or optionally, –10).
“Brought” is used to denote damage inflicted (how else does one get to 0 HP?). “Reach” is used to denote both damage inflicted or bleeding out. “Brought” and “reaches” interwoven indicates that the two words are used as synonyms, with no distinction between losing hit points from a physical injury, and losing hit points from bleeding out after 0 HP. Creatures are brought to 0 HP (from damage) and those with 0 (or fewer) HP can be returned to consciousness.
A creature can be brought to –4 by whatever path, and still be alive. That makes far more sense than PCs can be at –4 and might or might not be dead depending. “reaching” and “brought to” are used interchangeably for damage received, or damage bleeding out. So a creature can reach –6 HP either way, and be scarred. With a mighty enough blow for 16 points of damage, a creature with 10 hit points is brought to –6 HP, falls unconscious, has 4 rounds to live, and will be scarred.
It’s clear from inconsistencies in the text that the introduction of negative hit points was implemented part way through the writing of the DMG, and then not fully edited back into the text. But the conclusion is:
“Creatures are unconscious when at 0 (or lower) hit points. Optionally, unconsciousness doesn’t start until –3, potentially providing the creature wounded to 0, –1, or –2 a round or so to bind their own wounds. Creatures lose 1 hit point per round when they have 0 to –9 hit points. That loss will cease upon receiving aid for a round. Creatures die when they reach –10 hit points.”
That’s also consistent with the Cavalier class, which functions at negative hit points of –4 to –13 (depending on starting hit points). Normally all creatures lose consciousness at 0 HP. Optionally all creatures lose consciousness at –3. Cavaliers lose consciousness at the negative of their starting hit points, and won’t die until up to potentially –13.
Unconsciousness can occur to a PC with greater than 0 HP as well. Weaponless combat can knock a PC unconscious. Being stunned while already stunned will cause a PC to lose consciousness (UA). Other game effects (e.g., sleeping gas) can also cause unconsciousness, regardless of hit points. However, ongoing hit point loss only occurs at 0 hit points or below.
Once the character is unconscious, what’s next? Well, a friend (or foe) could bind their wounds, preventing further loss of hit points should their HP be negative. A foe could also strike again. An unconscious creature is beyond Stunned, Prone, or Motionless:
Magically Sleeping or Held Opponents: If a general melee is in progress, and the attacker IS subject to enemy actions, then these opponents are automatically struck by any attack to which they would normally be subject, and the maximum damage possible according to the weapon type is inflicted each time such an opponent is so attacked. The number of attacks or attack routines possible against such an opponent is twice the number normally allowed in a round.
In other words, if their opponent is in melee, an unconscious creature can automatically be dealt 2× maximum damage.
Otherwise, such opponents may be automatically slain, or bound as appropriate to materials at hand and size, at a rate of one per round.
The text for pummel also supports automatic death for those unconscious: “An unconscious opponent can be trussed or slain in 1 round.” If not in melee, an unconscious creature can be automatically slain or tied up (assuming such tools are available). Or, of course, just left to die within the next 10 rounds.
But at least when unconscious, a Phantasmal Killer can do no harm.