This isn't a new idea, but it's one that I've been trying to integrate into my descriptions at the table.
Basically, getting stabbed is deadly. Getting shot by an arrow is deadly. When that happens, there's a good chance it's game over no matter how many experience points you've pulled out of goblin corpses. For this reason, I've stopped describing hits in combat as literal hits, but instead treat hit points as a sort of player currency that is spent to negate hits. When someone rolls a miss, that's pretty straight forward. But if they roll a hit and you have HP remaining, you manage to block or dodge or absorb the blow. HP, I think, should be treated more as a stamina meter. You emerge from the battle bloody and bruised, but not with open sword wounds and half your liver lying on the ground.
This approach does require some sprucing up, but I think the added verisimilitude is worth the cost of a little brain power and rules complication. As we build our milieu, we are constantly tempted to tack on more and more systems rather than strip them out, so those that we do should be kept pretty simple if we can help it.
|"I'll be good to go again next week."|
The first question is, what are healing spells? I think it's fair enough to say they bestow rejuvenating energy on the exhausted, bruised, and aching characters who just came out of a life-or-death battle with wrenched joints and scratches and black eyes and busted shield arms and so on. For a magic-light setting, this is a pretty big boost. No more arrows popping out of the wounded fighter as the cleric performs a literal miracle before the eyes of the gathering crowd! Onlookers may even attribute the rejuvenated warrior's recovery to a placebo effect, or simple prodding of faith.
The next two questions are: If HP represent stamina, should we be more generous with natural healing? And what about grievous wounds that nevertheless don't kill? I haven't hammered out the specifics, but I feel like this is a case of counter-balancing. We can consider a certain percentage of HP to be actual wounds, and the rest to be stamina. 10%, say. Or your first hit die. Or your final 10 hp. Damage that soaks into that region represents an actual hit, and may stay with you awhile and require proper bandaging and treatment after the battle. Stamina may recover much faster than HP in the standard rules, but actual wounds may take a long time and prevent stamina recovery until they're taken care of. There's also room to let a player describe his new permanent scar any time he's knocked down to this level.
Yet another benefit is that it recovers some of the lost verisimilitude of a higher level fighter being able to get stabbed more times before dying, or for a 12 damage wound being deadly to one guy, but trivial to another. It's much easier to imagine that a high level warrior is simply better at blocking and dodging than his low level counterpart, and so is able to deflect more of the blows that would kill a less skilled combatant.
I remember playing in a friend's homebrew game many years ago, for which he made a very interesting armor system. Instead of dexterity and armor contributing to the same number and making you harder to hit, that was exclusively the role of dexterity. Armor was worth additional hit points, and damage went to the armor first. This made the Armorer proficiency very valuable! It also made those suits of armor found in armory of the slavers' fort a much better treasure. Players typically gloss over any armor less than what they currently have--but when your plate mail is dinged up and on its last legs, that suit of chain on the rack is suddenly quite attractive. As a system, it's a little too fiddly for what I'm looking to do here, but it stuck with me as an interesting answer to a difficult problem.