Friday, 13 February 2015

Hit Points as Proxies for Character Traits, and the Genius of the Abstract

I've written a lot about hit points on the blog over the years (see entries passim here and here, for starters) but one thing I haven't touched on is something that came up in an old episode of A Gaming Podcast About Nothing, in which we mused on the notion of a 1st level fighting man with 18 STR but 1 hp. A character who could fairly easily come up through random character generation, but who is on his face hard to conceptualise and self-evidently "sub-optimal" if you care about that kind of thing.

What isn't often remarked upon is that, because hit points are abstract, they're not really necessarily tied to health. This makes them actually fairly powerful tools for packaging information about an otherwise faceless character. Let's explain by taking three model fighters, Bill, Ben and Ted.

Bill is a 1st level fighting man with 18 STR and 1 hp. He is extremely healthy and robust, but also absurdly reckless and belligerent; in any fight he leaves himself highly vulnerable to attack through his sheer uncontrolled desire to crush his enemy. A clever opponent need only wait for an opening to deal a killing blow.

Ben is a 1st level fighting man with 18 STR and 1 hp. As a child, Ben was cursed by his father's witch lover, out of spite for his mother. Ever since, he has gone through life with a bleak fate hanging over him: he will meet an ignominous end. He does not know how or where or why, but only that some otherwise humdrum accident or mistake will bring about his death.

Ted is a 1st level fighting man with 18 STR and 1 hp. Ted was constructed by a mad archmage when a teenager, who removed every bone in his body and replaced them with glass. Ted possesses vast strength, but his skeleton is so brittle that one decent blow is enough to shatter it irrevocably.

The otherwise uninteresting and uninspiring stat, in other words, can be interpreted into something unique - because of D&D's unintentional genius for the abstract.


  1. I like it, I don't love it.
    Bill - Goblins count as clever opponents? (they seem pretty incompetent)
    Ben - Would remove curse give him more HP or is this curse too strong?
    Ted - What happens when Ted goes up a level or two, do his bones learn to be not glass?

    Also we're only one letter off from being Bill en Ted.

    1. The Bill and Ted thing is deliberate. ;) See below comment to Antonio. Rationalising levelling up and thinking about cursing are just further interesting things to explore.

      Goblins are definitely clever opponents, though.

  2. Ruptect was string and fast but also a hemophiliac. Maybe he will improve at dodging blows because his house surgeon said he was likely to bleed out if he cut himself shaving.

  3. Level advancement can potentially wreak all of those concepts.

    1. It can, but it can also make them more interesting. Maybe Ted's glass skeleton hardens over time. Or transforms into silicon. Why? Rationalising the abstraction of levelling is yet another element of the same phenomenon.

  4. I put together something similar that focuses on Ability Scores to provide a little color to bonuses and penalties (which typically don't inform play as much as they should, or receive just a hand-wavy "I rolled poorly" justification).
    Decoupling hit points from "Health" and keeping them abstract has long been a preference of mine. I've experimented with using Wisdom as the modifier to help enforce this (they're luck, skill, intuition), and my current preference is to re-roll HD at the start of each combat encounter (this keeps the player's on their toes, and even a high level fighter will change tactics and fight a little more cautiously if the majority of their HD come up 1s). Since the last hit point is really the only one that matters in D&D, they turn into a "fight timer" for the players and are rationalized into things like exhaustion, bad luck, or even "these Goblins are better fighters than the last ones (because I have lower HP)" rather than mass or physical damage capacity.
    Injury still occurs, but it's usually the result of failed Saving Throws (one vs Death is offered to players when they lose that fatal, final hit point) and creates fictional challenges like broken bones, bleeding, and othersuch. Injury directly impacts a character's capability (be it movement rate, ability scores, etc) in a way that Hit Point loss never really did.

  5. 18 Strength and 1 HP? You just described every body builder I ever heard of in their first bar fight! If Hit Points are an abstract that combines health, determination and survival instinct ( a huge if, but the one I use) then such a character would be a great example of a guy who pumps iron and flexes and benches obscene amounts of weight and could hit really hard, but has never taken an injury ever and damn near dies of shock after being cut once.