A Simple Hack: Non-Lethal D&D


I was recently listening to an episode of Saving the Game, in which they described an issue they had with their Pugmire play group. Normally in D&D, there is tons of violence and killing, and that is the norm. The majority of problems are solved with weapon attacks and abilities that deal damage, or make it easier for your allies to deal damage. D&D is designed to be played this way – and of course individual groups will have more or less violence in play, but you go down into Dungeons to fight monsters and you face Dragons to kill them and take their treasure. That’s the game, at its core, and always has been.

The issue in this case is that, in Pugmire, the protagonists and antagonists are mostly dogs and cats, and one player was really disturbed by dogs and cats, even anthropomorphic ones, being killed the way goblins and orcs tend to be in other D&D settings. It had increased emotional impact, the way that the death of a dog can be in a movie where there are innumerable human deaths (just ask John Wick).

Hit Points become Morale

I’d like to draw on an MMO I used to play regularly, Lord of the Rings Online, to recommend a simple hack of D&D that retains almost all of the mechanics but enables combat to be non-lethal a majority of the time, while still giving the lethal option if you want one. Basically, cross out “Hit Points” and write in “Morale.”

LOTRO uses morale as the hit-point system, and for an MMO set in Middle-Earth it was a very intelligent fix to the problem of handling the constant death and resurrection that is a mainstay of pretty much every MMO out there. There is no fictional support in Middle-Earth as a setting for a party going on a raid to attack a boss, getting killed, resurrecting themselves and jumping back in. As much as that is goofy and makes no sense, it is necessary to how MMOs are currently designed. In order to make this system make sense, hit points were changed to morale. This changes the fiction of what healing and resurrecting are, without changing the mechanics at all. In LOTRO, when you drop to 0 morale, your character flees the battle to a safe point nearby. Then, when she calms down, you can meet up with the rest of your group or run back into the dungeon or combat. Minstrels are healers in LOTRO, bolstering their comrades morale without having to supernaturally heal them, another element common to MMOs that would not make much sense in Middle-Earth.

So, back to D&D. If we change hit points to morale, and leave it at that, the game functions in a similar way. Healing spells become magical encouragement spells. Long rests where you recover all of your hit points make more sense, not less. Melee attacks beat down an opponent’s will to fight, and spells terrify and demoralize. All of these things can also injure your opponents, but the injuries are non-fatal. Bruises and fractures and cuts and burns, but nothing life-threatening.

With the classes as written, hit points can be morale. Fighting classes will have more morale, with the most going to the barbarian. This makes perfect sense – the barbarian is basically frothing at the mouth, full of rage, and really hard to bring down. In contrast, a wizard is more cool and collected, and probably easier to take out of a fight. They’d be less willing to risk losing a finger or an eye, or receiving a brain injury, than a fighter type. Again, it makes sense.

Dropping to Zero

The big difference with this hack is what happens when a creature reaches 0 or fewer morale. Obviously, there are no death saves. What I imagine happening is the creature tries desperately to flee or, if that is impossible, collapses in exhaustion and surrenders. The defeat should be total – weapons thrown down, cowering, etc. In theory, the PC group now gets what they wanted – defeating their foes, or being able to take their treasure, or exacting an oath that they will never trouble these lands again. Whatever it is that the violence was supposed to solve. I’d also make sure that whatever happened leaves marks on your foes. They don’t come through this unscathed. They are physically and psychologically unable to fight – however that looks based on what has happened.

Coup de Grace

This hack still leaves the opening for the coup-de-grace, of course. Once you’ve beaten down your foe, you can still finish her off. I find this interesting because you are given a moment in between in which you can choose not to. In military terms, your opponent is a casualty but has not been killed, since a casualty is just a soldier who is taken out of a fight.

The Truly Monstrous

Some monsters are not intelligent, or cannot be negotiated with. There are implacable aberrations driven by hunger alone, or undead animated by necromancy, or constructs who follow their creator’s commands until destroyed. In these cases, I don’t see nearly as much of a problem with morale meaning something much more like hit points. But I think this is something that the DM and players can easily decide ahead of time, and it opens up new roleplaying possibilities.

The D&D Prisoner Problem

One significant problem I can see with this hack in a D&D game is the prisoner problem. When D&D characters take prisoners, at least in my observation and experience, there is always a big debate. The Paladin wants to chain them up and transport them to the nearest magistrate for a full trial. The Fighter wants to beat them up for information. The Rogue wants to slit their throats and take their gold. (Or however this plays out at your table) I think that to use this hack and make it work, you have to just agree on a meta-game level that when reduced to 0 or fewer morale, your foe is done. They aren’t going to lie to you and then go off and rejoin your enemies so you have to fight them again. They are terrified and beaten and at your mercy, and if you let them go they will limp away someplace else and try to take up a different life. If you meet them later, they will just run away or beg for mercy. I think that if this is understood as just how the game will work, most problems should be easy to solve.

Gaming with Kids

As we gamers get older and have little proto-gamers of our own, it can be hard to introduce D&D to them, at least for some of us, because it is such a bloodbath. But with this simple hack, you can still, I think, have all of the swashbuckling adventure without all of the killing.


Share what you think of this hack. Add your own nuances or modifications. Have you tried anything like this in a D&D game? How did it go?

5 thoughts on “A Simple Hack: Non-Lethal D&D

  1. Taking more inspiration from LOTRO, there is actually a wound system. It comes from especially hard hits, or crits, or even something like falling off a ledge. It affects your movement, and as I recall can only be healed with first aid type skills (and probably higher-level healing abilities from classes like the Minstrel)

    The way I would apply this to non-lethal D&D is to have a wound mean a level of exhaustion. And maybe it could come from massive damage, or a critical hit, etc. It’s possible to kill someone with exhaustion levels, but it takes five levels to do it, and a normal foe would give up long before that. It would also be a way to short-cut the war of attrition around hit points/morale.

    But I’m definitely with you in wanting to expand the ways that D&D heroes can overcome opponents, and to encourage those other approaches and outcomes in the system with the fewest changes possible.


  2. From Alex:

    “I like the idea. I found a hack online that might mesh with this. The author called HP ‘fighting spirit’, which includes the element of morale. Once you get to 0 fighting spirit you’re into seriously wounded territory. At levels 1-3 you get 1 die of what I call life points (he called them hit points, but they’re a new mechanic and I thought I’d leave Hit Points so named for clarity, and add Life Points as the hack). The idea is at 0 HP (fighting spirit/morale) you start to role with disadvantage – you’re dying. This gives the player a psychological cue that things are desperate and they might want to run away. At 0 life points you’re down to saving throws. In his system monsters don’t have Life Points, but you could add it for the sake of this morale mechanic.

    I’ll have to give it some thought as I’m trying to not go down the ‘kill the monster steal the booty’ route all the time.”


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