Every once in awhile, you’ll hear the complaint that lower level D&D characters don’t feel like the heroic characters from pulp adventures on account of how fragile they are. The low HP means that a couple of good hits will kill those lower level characters, whether in fights or to traps or even something as ignominious as falling down a flight of stairs.
One of my counters to this is that most pulp heroes would be at the lower end of mid-level, contra to what is suggested in many of those old articles where Gary and friends would stat up Cugel or Eric John Stark as being well into double digits with massive pools of HP to prevent low-level PCs from being able to meet and kill these characters just because they were there and they could (though I’m sure they did).
Another bug-bear of oldschool games is the saving throw, particularly in save or die situations. Why should a character with all of that HP be insta-killed?! It’s just not fair! A character who can take 8 full-on sword wounds shouldn’t be able to die just because he was bitten by a snake or had a rock fall on his head! Besides, that’s entirely unpulpy, right?!
Well, take this from Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, at a point in his career where he’s probably level 27 and has a gorillion hit points:
Tarzan remained very quiet. He did not wish to frighten it away for he realized that one of them must be the prey of the carnivore sneaking upon them, but if he expected the thag to be frightened he soon realized his error in judgment for, uttering low grumblings, the great bull pawed the earth with a front foot, and then, lowering his massive horns, gored it angrily, and the ape-man knew that he was working his short temper up to charging pitch; nor did it seem that this was to take long for already he was advancing menacingly to the accompaniment of thunderous bellowing. His tail was up and his head down as he broke into the trot that precluded the charge.
The ape-man realized that if he was ever struck by those massive horns or that heavy head, his skull would be crushed like an eggshell.
The dizzy spinning that had been caused by the first stretching of the rawhide to his weight had lessened to a gentle turning motion; so that sometimes he faced the thag and sometimes in the opposite direction. The utter helplessness of his position galled the ape-man and gave him more concern than any consideration of impending death. From childhood he had walked hand in hand with the Grim Reaper and he had looked upon death in so many forms that it held no terror for him. He knew that it was the final experience of all created things, that it must as inevitably come to him as to others and while he loved life and did not wish to die, its mere approach induced within him no futile hysteria. But to die without a chance to fight for life was not such an end as Tarzan of the Apes would have chosen. And now, as his body slowly revolved and his eyes were turned away from the charging thag, his heart sank at the thought that he was not even to be vouchsafed the meager satisfaction of meeting death face to face.
Tarzan, with all of his HP was forced to make save-vs-death against some kind of charging inner-earth dire oryx. His saving throw numbers are probably really low at this point, and he probably could’ve made it with anything but a nat 1, but it was still going to be a case of instant-death regardless of how many hit points he has.
This ties back into the game theory that HP doesn’t represent actual wounds but exhaustion and the character’s ability to fight on under pressure in extreme circumstance. Of course, you also might say that it would not be very pulpy to fail your saving throw and be instantly killed, but D&D is a game, and without a genuine sense of risk, your game can end up in a boring slump where everyone knows that everyone is going to live no matter what, so why bother faking the suspense? And in those cases where your life is on the line AND YOU MAKE IT, how much more awesome is it? It makes those times when you could’ve lost your character but didn’t all the more special.