It was not until much later, when I began competing in traditional karate, that I truly understood the wisdom behind the melee combat and hit point mechanics in D&D and how well they balance pragmatic simulation with realism. When facing an opponent of roughly equal skill there is much maneuvering, feinting and adjusting as you try to put your foe off balance both physically and psychologically, and long periods of time can elapse between true attacks. Condensing all of the action in a one-minute combat round into a single die roll keeps the combat moving quickly, while providing a reasonably accurate simulation of the fight. Compare this to a system, like GURPS (which I also enjoy), where the combat round is one second long and every swing, feint, parry, and dodge is accounted for. This makes for a highly tactical combat system, but fights take a very long time to resolve. This is great for some types of campaigns, but for high-octane sword and sorcery action I prefer D&D's abstract combat mechanics.
You will notice that I mentioned that the lengthy period of give and take in melee applies to combatants of roughly equal skill. A superior fighter will quickly outclass his opponent, and this is reflected in the D&D rules by allowing fighters extra attacks against opponents with less that one full hit die. This represents the relative difficulty such opponents will have in avoiding the attacks of a more skillful foe.
I really like the rationale behind hit points, too. I didn't used to, though, and I remember chuckling at a cartoon, probably in Murphy's Rules, depicting a D&D fighter yawning in boredom as someone stabbed him repeatedly in the chest with a dagger. It's comforting to know that I'm not the only one who didn't understand hit points. Considering them to represent not the amount of physical damage one can withstand, but a measure of skill, endurance, and luck reflects real combat reasonably well. The only times I've ever been injured in fight were when I was too exhausted to adequately protect myself. There have been occasions when I was too tired to even lift my arms any more. This is a condition that I call 'sword-dragging tired' after the final fight scene between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth in the movie, Rob Roy. Neeson's character staggers across the arena floor dragging his sword behind him, too exhausted to lift it. He's only suffered minor cuts up until this point, and isn't really hurt, but he is physically and mentally worn out and is down to his last few hit points. He can't defend himself anymore and it is clear to all that the next blow will kill him. This is a great cinematic example of how hit points in D&D work.
So my question, which I'm sure has been the subject of innumerable internet forum debates, is this: if hit points don't represent real damage, why does it take so long to recover them? There have been plenty of competitions that have left me 'sword-dragging tired' and down to my last few hit points, but after a good night's sleep, aside from a little minor stiffness, I felt perfectly refreshed.
I've been using a house rule for healing for some time now, that seems to work quite nicely and evokes the sword & sorcery genre - after all, how often do you see Conan lying bed-ridden for two weeks, recovering from his latest adventure? I consider a character's starting hit points at 1st level to represent his capacity to withstand physical damage - thus any damage dealt to a 1st level character is a wound, and these hit points heal at the normal rate. Hit points gained at subsequent levels are a reflection of increased skill and endurance, and any hit point loss that does not reduce a character's hit point total below his 1st level starting value represents only fatigue, and these hit points are recovered relatively quickly. In dangerous and uncomfortable settings, like camping out in the dungeon, a character recovers 1 hit point per hour of rest. If resting in a safe comfortable environment, a character will recover 2 hit points per hour of rest. If resting at an inn with cold ale, a comfortable bed, and a willing wench to warm it, the character will recover all non-wound hit points in the course of a night. I reckon that no matter how badly off Conan, Fafhrd, or the Gray Mouser are, a night of drinking and wenching always puts them to rights. This rule also helps encourage sword & sorcery genre conventions.
I am well aware of the irony of recently admitting my past ignorance of the rationale behind certain D&D rules while at the same time invoking a house rule to "fix" one of the tried and true rules of the game. To quote Gary Gygax:
"I do admit to becoming a trifle irritated at times to read an article in some obscure fan magazine or a letter to the editor of some small publication which attacks the game - or claims to be sure to improve it if only their new and 'improved' rules are followed. My irritation is, I hope, only impatience with those who only dimly perceive the actual concepts of the game, and not my wounded vanity."I have no doubt that my problem with the rate of natural healing in D&D reflects my dim perception of the concepts of the game. Most of my other problems with the rules have been - why not this, too? After thirty years I'm still not getting it, so until I have an epiphany and come to truly understand the rationale behind the game's natural healing rate, I'm going to stick with my house rule for the time being. It works well for me, reinforces the sword & sorcery genre and, I think, sticks to D&D's spirit of realism and pragmatic abstraction.