Sunday, 5 October 2014

Describing Hit Point States

Observation 1: Hit points are an abstraction which represent morale, fatigue, fitness, and so forth as much as health. (The classic statement of this being the fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne - erroneously identified in places as the Sheriff of Nottingham - from the classic Errol Flynn film; see this ENWorld post. The fight goes on for some time and the two figures don't wound each other until the killing blow, but Gygax seems to have imagined them losing hit points during the course of the combat nonetheless.) A lot has been written on this point, not least by me. But I don't think I'm saying anything controversial, either, if I suggest that the great majority of DMs tend to describe combat in a manner which suggests hit points are more concrete representations of health. What DMs tend to do (and I include myself in this), is that they describe the attack roll as being like the swing of a sword, and if it's a miss it's described as "you slash at the orc but don't connect" (or whatever), if it's a hit that does 1 hp of damage it's described as "you slash the orc across the shoulder" (or whatever), and if it's a killing hit it's described as "you stab the orc through the heart" (or whatever). This doesn't really square with this notion that hit points are an abstraction.

Observation 2: Hit points are actually fairly good at modelling what happens in a fight, in that wounds and injuries recieved, especially to the torso, tend not to affect combatants all that much until a genuine killing or knockout blow is recieved. A couple of times in my sporting life I've bruised or fractured ribs, or had a nosebleed or broken toe, and been able to finish whatever I was doing without much inconvenience. You don't notice the pain, often, until later in the day or the next morning when you can't get out of bed. This is due to the wondrous effects of adrenaline, obviously, and it's actually reflected quite well in D&D hit points, whose loss does not at all affect a combatant's ability to fight, but which do require healing afterwards. See also this short section from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror:

In one combat Don Pero Nino was struck by an arrow that "knit together his gorget and his neck," but he fought on against the enemy... "Several lance stumps were still in his shield and it was that which hindered him most." A bolt from a crossbow "pierced his nostrils most painfully whereat he was dazed, but his daze lasted but a little time." He pressed forward, recieving many sword blows on head and shoulders which "sometimes hit the bolt embedded in his nose making him suffer great pain." When weariness on both sides brought the battle to an end, Pero Nino's shield was "tattered and all in pieces; his sword blade was toothed like a saw and dyed with blood...his armour was broken in several places by lance-heads of which some had entered the flesh and drawn blood, although the coat was of great strength." 

I've been considering these observations lately; and in particular I'm considering whether anybody actually needs the weird genuflection of hit points representing intangibles like morale and fatigue. I used to find Gygax's reasoning fairly convincing, to a point, but now I'm not sure. Combatants get injured during a fight by hits from enemy attacks. They don't really notice it during the fight unless it's very serious - because of the adrenaline and their own toughness. There's no great inconsistency there between the model and reality. The only tweak I might add to my games in future is something like this:

If a combatant loses 50% of his or her hit points in a given combat, from the next day onwards he or she takes a -1 penalty to all dice rolls until healed.
If a combatant loses 75% of his or her hit points in a given combat, from the next day onwards he or she is at half movement rate in addition to the above penalty, until healed. 


  1. One problem is that *wounds* are abstracted but healing isn't. Healing assumes physical wounds were inflicted. Look at boxing or mma, one could be jaded to the point of effective incapacitation - 0 hp - and either easily killed or escape somehow and recover all your hps within one hour. But once you distinguish between real and abstract wounds to keep track of rate recovery separately which is unappealing.

    I used to say that all hps above 7 + Con bonus were the abstract ones which recovered swiftly but if you were wounded to below 7 + Con bonus you received a physical wound which only slowly healed as per the book.

    An issue you are ignoring with your solution is that hps coming with level advancement make no sense as deriving from physical toughness, they can only be the abstract type.

    I think too sometimes a fighter can survive a severe battering as you describe it but that was a matter of *luck*. The same guy could easily pop his knee or have an artery nicked and it has nothing to do with toughness, he is going down.

    I think if D&Ders can stomach them the random critical hit tables of Rolemaster or WHFRP are the only credible way of dealing with physical injuries.

    1. Yeah, I was going to add a critical hit table on the end of this post, but decided to save it for later. Again, I quite like that idea of saving it until after combat. Sort of: You survive, but with ailment [x].

  2. You're on the right track. Abstract hitpoints are a kludge to try and make them make sense. It doesn't really work.

    DM> "the goblin attacks...18 hits your AC, 5 damage...a near miss! You just manage to dodge his blade!"
    player> "hey cleric, after that last near miss I'm feeling very 'unlucky', please cast Cure Light Wounds on me to restore my luck."

    Fall in a pit trap and get:
    A) less lucky
    B) demoralized
    C) loss of divine favor
    D) tired

    None of it makes sense at all. Wounds are wounds, Hit points are meat. There's no way around it. No matter what the rule books say.

    The problem we're left with is that some people can take absurd amounts of damage before they die. It's why I keep a tight leash on HP inflation. No human should really have more than 50 or 60 HP ever.

  3. The notion of Abstract hps was brilliant. Ordinary folks don't understand that all of these char sheet numbers are just sensible biases for conflict resolution and if you move them out of one stat they would need to go somewhere else.

    Folks with weak imaginations struggle with abstract ideas.

  4. Here's an idea: during combat, you only accumulate dice of damage. So if a goblin shanks you with a dagger twice and you get shot by a shortbow once and cut by a longsword once, you get 2d4+1d6+1d8 damage.

    Roll the damage dice only after combat, when you've had time to check your wounds and your adrenaline starts fading.

    And then there are several ways in which you could resolve the final number, determining actual injuries and their severity.

    1. >>Roll the damage dice only after combat

      How do determine when the fight is over?

    2. I really like that idea. Although there needs to be some way to represent the fact that sometimes somebody gets his head chopped off and there's no way he's seeing out the fight.

    3. This is reminding me of the conflict-system in Dogs in the Vineyard; there is a definite limit to how long conflict can go on for, and at the end of it dice are rolled based on whether anyone was injured (physically, mentally, verbally, socially) with the dice that are rolled being of a higher type depending on how severe the conflict was. Consequences go from possessions being broken, stats or skills being reduced and injuries all the way up to death.

    4. Maybe instead of rolling damage at the end of combat, and this is specifically for D&D-type games, roll damage after a number of rounds equal to a character's CON bonus? So a character with a CON of +3 would have adrenaline for 3 rounds, while a wizard would have to suffer damage rolls at the end of each round (CON+1).

      If a character has a CON bonus of anything less than 1 they roll damage as they take it.

  5. This all points to why I don't like hit points. If they are supposed to be an abstraction, as Kent mentions, why isn't healing that way. Do Clerics have a spell called Cure Light Lack of Morale?

    I much prefer game systems where there are conditions, but no actual hit points, such as West End Games' Star Wars D6 .

    Since I tend to play more narratively than tactically, I'd rather be 'Stunned' or 'Wounded', with penalties to my rolls and such, then fight exactly the same way at 50 hit points as I do at 5 even though it 'represents' my being winded and worn down.

  6. @ Noisms (re HP damage being "real" damage, like cuts, bruises, etc.):

    It works (a bit) if you take the logic backwards: an experienced fighter suffers numerous wounds (takes multiple hits, loses dozens of HPs) before succumbing to death. What this ends up meaning for the less experienced warrior, then, is that any wound is exponentially worse...a wound to a 1st level veteran is seven times worse than that suffered by an 7th level champion, for example, because we're talking about real blood and suffering.

    With regard to healing magic, then, you need to start defining what a light wound is versus a serious wound and providing an appropriate range of healing depending on what (and who) is being healed. Which might be more work than a lot of DMs want to struggle with.

    The part where this "real damage" thang breaks down for me is that it still doesn't really model real combat experience...a grizzled man-at-arms only has the same number of hit points as a novice adventurer (or less). For me, the abstract HPs measuring luck or experience or heroic fate or whatever better describes the increase of HPs for PCs in the game. After all, blood and guts are fine HP representations for fighters, but what about that 8th level thief or 10th level magic-user? I kind of expect the average academic to crumple at the first sign of his own blood, not hang in there like the fighter in sweat-soaked mail.

    1. This comment is why every time I think about picking up a D&D variant I play BRP variants instead.

      Static hit points and everything is super deadly, for everyone.

    2. At lower levels DnD combat sorta models real world combat. At higher levels it models genre fiction, comics, movies, legendary tales. It works and not just for fighters. A 10th level MU is not the average academic, he's a guy who can bend the laws of nature to his will. He has faced undead armies, fought dragons, and traveled to distant continents and lost cities. He has likely seen friends die along the way. A goblin who gets a lucky hit with a dagger is no threat. At first level though a goblin with a dagger is a serious threat! The thing about DnD is that if you start at 1st level and play up to name level and beyond then the game you are playing at the beginning is not really the same game you are playing at the end. I've never heard a player object to the character he's been playing for years complain when he survives a stab wound/pit trap whatever, but if you want a more realistic game or if you want to skip straight to heroic fantasy there are plenty of ways to hack DnD and/or other games to play.

  7. I'm a big fan of the vitality/wounds split. It was first introduced in Star Wars (the d20 one before SAGA), and I mostly know it from Spycraft.

    The basic notion is like Kent's idea. You have vitality equal to your regular hit points. You have a number of wounds equal to your Con score (on the 3-18 scale). Most of the time when you take a hit, it comes off your vitality. This represents fatigue and minor injuries, like bruising and scratching. If you run out of vitality, then you start taking wounds. This represents serious injuries. If you run out wounds, you go unconscious, and may die.

    Critical hits bypass vitality and go straight to wounds. So do certain "extremely deadly situations", like having a grenade go off in your hand.

    Characters recover their full vitality after a rest. Wounds recover more slowly. Wounds also apply lingering penalties until they heal.

    This solves several problems with the hit point system. First, it preserves the basic combat system of D&D/d20. You don't need to do an overhaul like you would with, say, a condition track. Second, it fairly neatly divides the actual damage from the miscellaneous fatigue effects. Third, it makes for a much more powerful effect of critical hits than double damage, without going into the crazy RoleMaster tables. Fourth, since wounds never increase with level, a critical hit from that goblin could, in theory, still kill a 20th level character. Fifth, it allows for adventurers to bounce back from combats without having to tap out the cleric, but also makes some wounds linger in a reasonably realistic way.

    I find that it works really well, and is very easy for long time D&D players to quickly grasp.

    1. Hm...I kind of like this concept. I feel like mechanical penalties need to factor in, though, for taking wound damage.

  8. The weird thing about (pre-4e) D&D hit points, as shown in your quotes, is that they model real combat much better than they model cinema combat! Movie characters don't get broken fingers and such when fighting, though the actors often do - Sandahl Bergmann nearly lost a finger in "Conan the Barbarian".