What Do I Know About Houserules? The Hit Point Slider (D&D 5e)
This topic has come up a lot, and it’s not new to D&D 5e. Adjusting the number of hit points that an opponent has is one of the “difficulty sliders” that can be utilized in D&D, but the “permission” to do that has shifted a bit over time. For example, earlier editions of D&D strongly implied (if not directly stating) that hit dice are randomly rolled to determine hit points. Except for dragons. D&D has been a long journey.
A big proponent of adjusting hit points in the 5e era has been Mike Shea, i.e. Sly Flourish, but one thing that always concerns me about adjusting hit points is that I don’t like to employ “DM Fiat” too often. I would much rather have some guidelines to keep me from doing “whatever,” even if it’s just establishing my own rules, making them public, and holding myself to them.
For context, I’ve had discussions with some friends who have played in games where the DM didn’t keep track of hit points at all, and just decided when an enemy felt like it had taken “enough” damage based on how often the group was hitting and how impressive the damage dealt. That’s WAY too loose for me.
To Move Up or Down
I think before I go any deeper into this concept, I want to draw my line in the sand (which may not be yours):
- Once initiative is rolled, I won’t increase hit points (outside of what the rules already allow)
- I may adjust hit points down, based on how combat is going
I don’t have a good formula for an adjustment for challenge rating when doing this, but whenever I want to reinforce that some monsters are only there as rank and file minions, I will assign them minimum hit points. In some cases, that still means they have A LOT of hit points, but probably way lower than what a normal monster has. For example, in Storm King’s Thunder, there are a lot of giants. When there are multiple “soldier” giants, I assigned a few of them minimum hit points.
For example, the “average” Frost Giant has 138 hit points. To represent a “minion” Frost Giant, you can give them the “minimum” hit points, but that still gives them 72 hit points. They aren’t going down fast, but they aren’t staying in the fight as long as a “standard” giant.
Why Would I Assign Minimum Hit Points
Encounter ratings are tricky, but anytime you have an encounter that is on that razor’s edge between “Hard” and “Deadly,” it might be worth it to adjust some of those monsters down to their minimum hit points. That means they’ll hit just as hard, but concentrated effort whittles away the action economy working against the PCs.
Why Would I Adjust Hit Points Down In a Fight?
I would follow these guidelines when deciding if a fight needs to be adjusted down; when a monster reaches it’s “bloodied” number for their minimum hit points:
- The monster didn’t reach its “minimum bloodied” until round three
- More than one PC is at 0 hit points when the monster hits “minimum bloodied” number
Let’s take that Frost Giant from above:
138 hit points (Bloodied, 69 hit points)/72 hit points (Bloodied, 36 hit points)[-64 adjustment]
This means, if either of the two conditions above are true, subtract the adjustment number (the difference between average and minimum) and declare the monster “bloodied” for the characters.
Why Would I Adjust Hit Points Up?
First off, I stick by what I said above. I’m only going to adjust these hit points before initiative is rolled. I would do this under a few circumstances:
- A monster is going to face the party alone without any allies
- The PCs bypassed serious opposition to directly confront the monster
- The PCs managed to recharge their resources with a long rest in a situation where it might be difficult to do so
But what if you find out you overcorrected? That’s when you apply the same rules from above. Again, we’ll use the Frost Giant from above as an example. This is a Frost Giant champion that has been given maximum hit points as a “final boss” style character.
204 hit points (Bloodied, 102 hit points)/138 hit points (Bloodied, 69 hit points)[-66 adjustment]
So in this instance, if the PCs go into this boss fight and two of them drop to 0, or they don’t manage to reduce the boss to 69 or lower by round three, subtract 66 hit points and declare the monster bloodied.
When To Ignore the Hit Points
Sometimes, when you want to represent complications in a fight, you can have characters that exist in the scene, but they aren’t so much an assumed resource or opposition, but almost more like “terrain.” Guards might attack while a bigger fight is going on, but if anyone hits their armor class, they are out of the fight.
This can be used to give PCs time to get ready for a big fight. For example, if the monster is wiping out NPCs, one per attack used, this might “spend” the monster’s actions until they can cut a swath through all of the NPCs. You can still use regular NPC stat blocks for this, but since these are “extras,” as soon as their armor class is hit, they go down, like the traditional 4e minion rules.
I’ll offer the same disclaimer as above . . . spending monster actions on wiping out NPCs, or potentially having a few random attacks hit either the PCs or the monsters before the “extras” are cleared out of the scene will change the balance of the scene, but I don’t have a good equation for you. That said, see above in case your monster mowing down NPCs is a little too healthy after you have a chance to see how the fight is going.