“The morality of clean blood ought to be one of the first lessons taught us by our pastors and teachers. The physical is the substratum of the spiritual; and this fact ought to give the food we eat, and the air we breathe, a transcendent significance.” ~ Tyndale
Constitution is the forgotten attribute of Dungeons & Dragons. Across previous editions, it covered many exceptional rules, skills, and checks. However, in recent editions, it has been watered down to a few saving throws and a hit point modifier. In fact, a quick glance at some D&D Fifth Edition sources shows that Constitution really only comes into play with poison, disease, and similar effects. Now, these are perfectly acceptable applications for the attribute, but they are pittance compared to the variety of things Constitution has covered over the years. Let’s take a look back, to the very beginning…
In the earliest versions of D&D, it was impossible to increase Constitution or Charisma. Charisma, which includes leadership ability and force of personality, was thought too ephemeral an aspect to improve. Likewise, Constitution could not be improved, even though it is more of a physical trait, like Strength or Dexterity. Or is it? Perhaps the reason Constitution could not be improved is because, unlike Strength or Dexterity, there is a less tangible element. In fact, original box set booklets refer to Constitution as both physical condition AND “the ability to hold up under pressure” (Gygax and Arneson, 1981). This distinction indicates that, not only does Constitution cover physical endurance, but also some abstract ‘moxie’ or ‘mettle’ trait, which casts some light on some of the stranger rules of Constitution down the years.
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (my first love), Constitution held a fairly peculiar domain. It covered hit points, yes, and system shock when that was a feature. Most players will not be surprised to see it determines poison resistance, and given its association with hit points I doubt anyone is shocked to learn that Constitution used to grant regeneration with higher scores. But the interesting thing about AD&D’s Constitution stat is that it determined a character’s chance of surviving resurrection. Now, medically speaking, the better condition a body is in, the easier it is to revitalize. Sure. But given that resurrection uses divine magic in order to pull a character’s soul from the beyond and restore it to life, it seems far more likely that Constitution’s effect on resurrection has to do with that ephemeral quality of moxie; the mortal tendency to fight tooth and nail to hold onto life for just one extra breath.
But this trait seems to be continually downgraded with each new edition, the definition becoming simpler, the scope of Constitution growing narrower. In time, even specific skills governed by Constitution like Endurance and Concentration became saving throws instead, and the wonderful, obscure features of the attribute have become something hand-wavy about white blood cells and the ability to take a hit. But one facet still remains that fascinates the veteran gamer: Constitution saves against necromancy effects.
What is it about being in good physical condition that protects from necromancy? If anything, you would think that extra pint of blood makes you a bigger target for a vampire, or that low metabolic rate makes you susceptible to a Chill Touch. In fact, it’s fairly easy to justify Charisma or Wisdom saving throws instead, using your force of personality or calm mind to shrug off these dead magics. So maybe Constitution means more than being hail and hearty. Maybe it still refers to that indefinable grit, that tenacity, that helps characters take the double-shift on look out for goblin raiders, to push that extra inch in combat that breaks the enemy line, or even crawl their way back from beyond the brink of death.
Thank you for reading, if you have any idea what that means in game terms, leave your feedback. Otherwise, comment with topics you’d like to see me write about. And may you always write bigger, better, and badder games.