Massive Damage Threshold and Results

The massive damage rule is designed for games of heroic fantasy. It maintains the remote possibility that a single blow from a mighty opponent can kill a chracter, regardless of that character’s actual hit points.

Altering the massive damage rules can dramatically change the character’s attitude about combat. A lower threshold (the amount of damage that triggers a Fortitude save to avoid death) makes combat more deadly, perhaps turning any hit into a potentially life-threatening injury. On the other hand, a less deadly result on a failed save (unconsciousness instead of death, for instance) makes combat less dangerous, making a character’s current hit point total more important than any single hit.

Here, then, are several alternative massive damage thresholds and results. You can combine different variants to create your own custom system. For instance, you might combine the HD-based threshold variant with the size-based threshold variant to create a massive damage threshold that takes into account both a creature’s Hit Dice and size.

Regardless of the variant you use, each player should record his character’s massive damage threshold somewhere on the character sheet (to avoid mid-battle calculations), and the GM might want to add massive damage threshold values to monster and NPC statistics blocks for the same reason.

Metagame Analysis: Massive Damage Rules

The variant systems for massive damage affect the game in different ways.

The Constitution-based threshold variant is deadiler than the standard massive damage system, since the threshold is so much lower. It’s best for low-level, low-power games, or campaigns bent on “gritty realism” in combat. You may want to allow characters the option of increasing their thresholds without improving their Constitution scores. For instance, a feat called Improved Damage Threshold that increased a character’s damage threshold by 3 would allow a low-Constitution character to increase his massive damage threshold quickly and easily.

Unlike most other massive damage thresholds, the HD-based variant scales up with a character as he gains levels. At lower levels, the threshold is lower than the normal value, but still high enough that it rarely matters. At higher levels, a character’s massive damage threshold exceeds the value given in the standard d20 rules, increasing such characters’ survivability in combat. It favors monsters whose Hit Dice greatly exceed their Challenge Ratings, such as giants and dragons, since their massive damage thresholds will end up higher than those of the characters fighting them.

The size-based threshold variant hurts halfling and gnome PCs, as well as familiars and some animal companions. It generally favors monsters, since monsters tend to be larger than PCs.

The dying save result variant tends to create less deadly combats, since a single save doesn’t spell automatic death. Still, a failed save can be just as critical to the tide of battle as in the standard system—a dying character is every bit as useless as a dead one, and is likely to bleed off resources from one or more other characters who attempt to save him from death.

The near-death result is almost as deadly as the standard system, but it gives a character a slim chance of surviving. It is particularly suited for heroic campaigns in which characters often find themselves at the brink of death, only to pull back from the edge at the last possible moment.

The variable result system is less deadly than the standard rules (since it allows for the likelihood that a character will survive for at least a few rounds), but removes the predictability of the dying result and near death result variants. A lucky character might be reduced only to -1 hp, while an unlucky character might have mere seconds to survive until passing into the great beyond—if he gets any time at all.

Finally, the scaling saving throw option makes high-level combat particularly dangerous to characters with poor Fortitude saves. Since those characters also tend to have low hit points, combat becomes doubly deadly, since they now must worry about individual attacks from powerful opponents as well as the normal attrition of hit points.

Alternative Threshold Levels

The 50-point threshold in the standard d20 rules can be altered in several ways.

Constitution-Based Threshold

A character’s massive damage threshold is equal to his Constitution score. Whenever he takes damage from a single hit that equals or exceeds his current Constitution score, he must succeed on a DC 15 Fortitude save or suffer the effects of massive damage.

If an attack deals hit point damage and also changes the character’s Constitution score (such as a strike with a poisoned weapon), apply all effects of the hit before determining whether the damage is enough to trigger the saving throw. For instance, a character with a 14 Constitution is hit by a greatsword coated with black adder venom. The attack deals 12 points of damage, but the character also fails his Fortitude save against the poison and takes 3 points of Constitution damage. This lowers his Constitution—and hence his massive damage threshold—to 11. Since the damage exceeds the threshold, the character must now make a Fortitude save to avoid the effect of massive damage.

HD-Based Threshold

A character’s massive damage threshold is equal to 25, +2 per Hit Die. Whenever a character takes damage from a single hit that equals or exceeds this value, he must succeed on a DC 15 Fortitude save or suffer the effects of massive damage.

For example, a 5th-level human fighter has a massive damage threshold of 35 (25 + [2 × 5]). A fire giant has a massive damage threshold of 55 (25 + [2 × 15]).

Size-Based Threshold

A creature’s massive damage threshold is equal to 50, plus or minus 10 points for every size category larger or smaller than Medium. Whenever a creature takes damage that equals or exceeds this value, it must succeed on a DC 15 Fortitude save or suffer the effects of massive damage.

Alternative Save Failure Results

Failed massive damage Fortitude save results can be alterd in several ways.

Dying Result

Instead of a failed Fotitude save against massive damage resulting in instant death, a failed save results in a character being reduced to -1 hit point. The character becomes dying and unconscious, but can still become stable or be helped by his friends, just like any other character who is reduced to -1 hp.

Near-Death Result

Alternatively, instead of a failed Fortitude save against massive damage resulting in instant death, a failed save results in a character being reduced to -8 hp. The character is very close to death (having only a round or two to become stable or receive help), but isn’t automatically killed.

Variable Result

For an added bit of random chance, a character who fails his Fortitude save against massive damage rolls 1d10 to determine his negative hit point total. A roll of 1 to 9 indicates that the character is dying (at -1 hp on a 1, -2 hp on a 2, and so forth). A roll of 10 leaves the character with -10 hit points, which means he is dead.

Scaling The Saving Throw

Another way to tweak the massive damage system is to scale the Fortitude save DC based on the damage taken. For every 10 points of damage dealt by an attack in excess of a character’s massive damage threschold, increase his Fortitude save DC by 2. This rule functions the same regardless of the threshold you choose to use.

For instance, if you use the standard 50-point threshold, a hit that deals 50 to 59 points of damage requires a DC 15 save, 60 to 69 points DC 17, 70 to 79 points DC 19, and so forth. If you use the Constitution-based threshold, a character with a Constitution of 15 would have to make a DC 15 Fortitude save when taking 15 to 24 points from a single attack, DC 17 for 25 to 34 points, DC 19 for 35 to 44 points, and so on.

Combining Massive Damage Variants

The massive damage variants given above can be combined in a number of ways.

To combine the Constitution-based threshold variant with the HD-based system, simply use a character’s Constitution score instead of 25 to determine a character’s massive damage threshold. For example, a 3rd-level character with a Constitution of 14 has a massive damage threshold of 20 (14 + [3 × 2]). In most cases, this calculation results in a threshold lower than the HD-based threshold but still higher than the Constitution-based threshold—retaining the “grittiness” of the Constitution-based system for low-to mid-level characters, while allowing higher-level characters to become braver in combat.

You can easily combine the HD-based system with the size-based variant: Use half of the base value for size instead of 20 to determine the massive damage threshold. For instance, a 1st-level human fighter (a Medium character) has a massive damage threshold of 27 (half of 50 is 25, plus 2 × 1).

You probably shouldn’t combine the Constitution-based system with the size-based variant, since the threshold is already low enough that reducing it for Small or smaller characters unduly punishes them.

The alternate save failure results can be combined with any of the alternative threshold levels.