Level and hit point caps? Important or even crucial to (your) OSR style gaming or no?

It appears pretty universal and accepted that hit points of both Player characters and of Monsters have been really inflated over the years and DnD editions. A vast majority of the OSR style games and advocates seem to severely limit hit points, have lower Hit Dice per class or even cap maximum level at the 5 to 10 range and/or cap max Hit Points the 10 to 40 range. I think DCC, Index Card RPG, Mothership, Five Torches deep and many more do something akin to these things.

Growing up playing mostly AD&D 2nd edition the HP and especially level cap was kinda anathema to me,… but now I think it is crucial. To ensure that games and combat are way faster. To ensure that almost any kind of monster or situation can still be made challenging. To have more time roleplaying and less time ROLL playing and just rolling the dice forever and subtracting HP and trading blows forever in rounds or combats that never end and as such are way more predictable and less exciting. Of course the OSR games in question also really reduce monster HP, to make things more balanced, if still (a bit) more lethal.

How about you? What Hit Dice do you use for each class? Do you have a max HP or level Cap and if so what is that number?

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I use my own hack of the Arnesonian system:
All players have 3 hits points, with the option to use armour to absorb damage. Armour is technically capped at 4, but it is not expected that players will have that much as it will give severe disadvantage. All weapons deal 1 damage, rarely 2 or 3. I don’t have levels at the moment, only diegetic advancement.


Wow dude, you kinda blew my mind, in a good way. :slight_smile: Because I feel mildly guilty going to 1d4 Wiz, 1d6 Thief/Cler, 1d8 Fighter Hit Dice and level capping at 5 to 7 ish. Only with players that have played other RPGs with bigger hit point totals though. I had never actually heard of anyone I know using Arneson like system with hit and dmg points as low as yours.

Got a few questions:

  1. Don’t any of the players even mind, particularly ones that have played 5th or other higher power/HP games?
  2. Don’t you or the players miss the granularity a bitf? If almost every common weapon (and spell?) does the same damage, then there is little point to pick one over the other (which in theory is great), but there is also something fun about the randomness of rolling a 1d4 or 1d8, the actual roll itself and knowing that dmg can vary quite a bit.
  3. Not having levels as such, doesn’t that also more or less defeat the purpose of giving XP? Don’t players miss the XP…? You just gave me an idea of for a new thread. I do feel that level advancement should be way slower than in most non OSR rpgs, but the players earning 10 or 30 or 300 or 1000 XP per session and having a vague idea at which total they will break level can be sortoff exciting or fun, people like to get a sticker on their assignement at primary school and doesn’t seem like that desire every completely goes away hehe.
  4. Doesn’t it mean that combat is always very short and few rounds or not really due to healing and also taking very low dmg?
  5. Do you still roll a d20 to hit or what do you use?
  6. In other issues or reservations of running your game and solutions you have for them?
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Thank you for your very good questions.

  1. Actually I have 1 player who minds a bit (in a good way, it challenges my design choices). He doesn’t play 5e, but he still likes having more than 3 hits, variable damage on weapons and so on. I compensate this by giving my players a lot of narrative control over outcomes, and it does work nicely at the moment.
  2. This brings me to the next question. I agree that picking weapons and spells based on stats can be fun, but my game is more narrative focused. So players pick their weapons not based on damage dice, but based on what fits their character. Spells are low magic and are supposed to be used more like tools than weapons. For instance, a wizard ignites a bandit. I might not reduce the bandit to 0HP, but I will give players advantage on attacking that bandit. So wizards play more like support class. And I don’t follow enemies HP very strictly, if my players find a cool way to defeat them, they will most likely succeed. I don’t miss the granularity because my players won’t ask me “which die do I roll? how many?” and I won’t have to remember a bunch of stats for enemies.
  3. I don’t give XP. Characters get gold from dungeons and enemies, so they spend that on advancement. Buy new weapons, research spells, build a castle. It sounds silly because you can’t really advance if every weapon deals the same damage, but different weapons may give advantage vs certain enemies. Example: knight almost died while facing a ton of skeletons with his sword. the knight wants to test if skeletons have a weakness vs bludgeoning weapons. he buys himself a mace and voila, skeleton king defeated. I used milestone advancement before making this shift, so to me XP is already a very abstract concept.
  4. Combat is short because my players are very smart about tactical combat. Technically you would have 3-5 rounds before the enemies or characters go out of action. So combat is about 3 rounds on average. It’s really fast paced and I like that. Players look for any advantage they can gain.
  5. I roll 2d6, player rolls 2d6 + their advantages for skills, equipment and so on. Who rolls higher gets to narrate what happens. In combat the winner also deals 1 hit. If winner rolls 10 -> 2 hits, 12-> 3 hits. I’m still playtesting combat rules to make damage more variable, but I found this to be the most elegant solution so far without making a separate roll.
  6. Some players have trouble with the narrative freedom and choices they get. In my system you don’t get set options (for advancement, spells, and so on), and it is sometimes hard to get used to that. I think it is the GMs job to guide the players through their options at first and eventually they will get the hang of it and be a vital part of creating the narrative.

Having such a light ruleset this is borderline storygaming, and I know it is not for everyone. It is like 85% fiction, 15% system. I do like playing and dming more granular systems as you call them, but I always come back to relying on fiction more than numbers.

To me, the pre-d&d era of gaming is fascinating in the way you had limitless options, by having so few rules written down. If you are still interested I published (still WIP) the system I use on itch after almost a year of playing, adding and (mostly) subtracting rules. This really wouldn’t be possible without this post about Arnesonian gaming.

I hope I answered everything, but if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to ask. :slight_smile:


When I run Dungeons & Companies, levels are capped at 6, so a max level Fighting-Man with 18 Con has 6d8+18 hit points (re-rolled after each rest).

AS&SH has a level limit of 12, but Hit Dice don’t go above 9 for player characters, so the toughest level 9 barbarian has up to 9d12+27 hit points (and 12 more at level 12). It may seem high, but from mid-levels and onward, it’s not pure damage that is the most threatening anyways, but save or die rolls (poison, petrifaction, etc.) and level drain.

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Right now I am running two games, one with hit die caps and one without and I am waiting to see how they become different–so far after a few months they are the same.

I play with Beyond the Wall, and I’ve limited the character level to 10 (It’s the basic rule in BtW). So you can’t pass lvl 10, it’s the human maximum, and with 10d10 HP + Con bonus, I think a lvl 10 fighter will be about 75 HP. It’s a bit score, but at this level, the characters aren’t adventurers now, but land owners or important persons and don’t go very often in adventuring. Time to play the characters childs or companions :slight_smile: