Caveat: Very little about Dungeons & Dragons is intended to be clear cut. There are literally dozens or even hundreds of interpretations of how any particular mechanic works to simulate the real world or something else, etc. This is mine. YMMV.
Ah, the classic dilemma. How to present when your hero is up or down in a battle. Is it health, endurance, stamina, vitality, fatigue, guts, body, etc? Is it a red health bar that shakes and diminishes when your character is hit, or is it a more abstract measure of your combat prowess? If you take a grievous wound, do you lose a lot of hit points or do you lose just a few and instead end up with some condition (slowed, attack penalties, etc)? Why does the WotC writer’s handbook specifically state that you will never use the term “hit points” in a novel? (Ok, that one seems kind of obvious.)
Basically, it depends what you’re trying to simulate. It’s possible to build a system where you cover everything in excruciating detail. When you’re struck in combat, what kind of wound does it produce, how does that affect your combat effectiveness, how many such wounds can you take before you’re down, etc., etc. Various games have attempted this–think of hit tables, wound location tables, system shock rolls, etc.–with varying degrees of success.
Some games don’t want to do this, however. They are more interested in simulating a cinematic or pulp experience, where the heroic, gritty warrior fights in the middle of a swarm of baddies and emerges out the other side with a few bruises and carefully torn armor/clothes, a fierce look in her eye and blood all over her blade. In real life, of course, if you get attacked by 3-4 armed assailants, even if you’re an excellent fighter, odds are hilariously good you’re going down hard.
Think of the Lord of the Rings movies–yes, there was some brawling there, but it’s basically stylized, interesting-to-watch combat, not real battle. (And there’s no way Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas can fend off 50 orcs with just their personal weapons. No matter how live a machine gun Legolas’s bow can be.) The Princess Bride depicts fencing, but it’s stage fighting at about a quarter speed of real fencing. Most real fighting is over within seconds, or you’re going to lose the fight. Most fighting is done from ambush and is what we’d call dishonorable in the extreme–if you’re fighting for your life, you don’t have any time for flair or showing off. People who do that get killed really quickly.
Ask yourself: What experience are you really looking for in your games?
D&D and games like it (Pathfinder, Shadow of the Demon Lord, etc) tend to go with a more abstracted interpretation where Hit Points are the sum total of your ability to keep fighting. It’s a murky combination of health, fighting ability, endurance, will, grit, etc. When your hit points are positive, you’re up. When they’re 0 or below, you’re down and may be dying/dead. You typically have an attack roll in these games opposed by a static defense number (armor class [AC], defense, etc) the attacker has to meet, which is increased by things like wearing armor, using a shield, being really agile and thus hard to hit, etc.
In some games, your armor soaks (absorbs) damage, reducing the amount you’d take if you were struck rather than increasing your AC, and if it’s heavy, it might make you easier to hit (see the AGE system, Iron Kingdoms, etc).
Some games have dynamic defense rolls, which is a pretty good facsimile of actual combat. This was in vogue for a bunch of d20 games, where you’d roll your defense rather than have a static AC–as if a static AC was “taking 10” on defense checks. For instance, Jamie Lannister has like a +12 to hit because he’s such an awesome swordsman and you have +5 to your defense (because you have a shield and a Dex +1), and you both roll a d20, add your bonuses, and determine the result, which is that Jamie cuts your throat in one blow and you were supposed to be the tank, oh snap, TPK imminent. (True story.)
It can get more complicated, such as in Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Ascension, Werewolf: the Huntering, Jason: the Teen-Stomping, and other World of Darkness Games (ok, only those first two, but you get the idea), where you do damage by means of an attack roll (producing a number of successes), a defense roll (if they have an action to try to dodge, roll a number of dice, reduce the number of successes–if one success gets through, it does damage, plus any extra successes), a soak roll (where the number of successes reduces the damage of the attack), and damage marks wound boxes depending on the difference between these two results. It’s quite swingy in that way, or it can produce battles where two tough vampires just flail at each other for hours. Which can be fun in a way. 🙂
Games do this in different ways. The Cypher System (Numenera, the Strange, etc) has three ability tracks–Might, Speed, Intellect–which are mostly a pool of points you can spend to do things (limited resources representing fatigue) and also where you take damage when you’re hit by an attack. The pool that’s most appropriate is the one damaged (mental stress hits your intellect, poison hits your might, strikes to your limbs affects your speed, etc), and damage can be carried over if the primary pool it damages goes to 0. When one pool goes to 0, you are impaired, which means you function poorly. When two pools are exhausted, you’re disabled, which means you’re barely limping along. And when all three pools are spent, you’re incapacitated.
Cortex games like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Firefly, etc, handle damage in terms of giving a character a higher and higher stress die, which applies to physical, mental, or emotional stress. For instance, when someone hits you in combat, you take a die of physical stress, and future attacks against you can exploit that physical stress to enhance their die pools, i.e. increase their chances of harming you. Though if it’s only a little physical stress (d4), trying to exploit it is just as likely to screw up their attack and help you as actually harm you. It’s a complex, potentially very powerful system.
Games that are Powered by the Apocalypse… You know, I don’t really remember how these games do damage. Marking wounds? Probably. I should really get on playing that recently acquired copy of Monsterhearts 2 one of these days.
But I digress. Here we were talking about the classic, popular, occasionally embarrassing to the kids Daddy of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons.
MY INTERPRETATION OF HIT POINTS
Well here’s what Hit Points (HP) are to me. (Again, YMMV.)
Hit Points are your character’s staying power in a fight.
They represent primarily skill at fighting and stamina. This is why warrior types (fighters, paladins, barbarians, etc) have more hit points than wizards, sorcerers, bards, and other such squishy friends. The better you are at defending yourself and the stronger/tougher you are, the longer you will last in a battle.
This comes out of my own fight training and experience. Part of what marks a superior fighter is how long they can keep fighting at a high level of expertise. Most amateur fighters exhaust their hit points quickly and take a knock-out blow early on. More experienced fighters are better at turning blows into glancing strikes, essentially soaking more damage than lesser fighters, and continuing to perform at or near their peak efficiency.
HP are not a measure of your health… not exactly.
Go ahead, keep hitting me. (Artist unknown [?])
They aren’t some health bar floating over your character that measures how much raw vitality is surging through you, rawr! They *are* a measure of how many hits you can take before you go down, however. Or more accurately, how many *near misses* you can sustain before you take a serious wound.
When your armor turns aside a blow, that’s it hitting you and reducing your hit points. When you parry a strike, that’s it hitting you and reducing your hit points. When you narrowly *dodge* a fireball, that’s it hitting you and reducing your hit points–unless you have evasion, which represents a knack for not being there at all when the fireball hits. Because what happens is that the weapon or spell hits your weapon or armor and weakens you but doesn’t really hurt you. You shrug it off and keep fighting, but the sum total of a series of hits like that are going to wear you down. Hence your HP dwindles, and eventually you’re going to mess up defending yourself from a blow and go down (when they hit 0).
Injuries happen when HP are low.
In my games, a PC doesn’t actually get *injured* until their HP drop precipitously low. Low HP mean you’re more likely to falter in a block and take a serious injury. It’s you, dizzy, exhausted, rattled, breathing hard, about to go down. Look at a boxer or MMA fighter in the later rounds of a fight. That’s low HP. Their combat effectiveness is still high–they can still land good hits, sure–but the chances they’re going to get clobbered and put down are much, much higher than they were right out of the gate.
A lot of games have some sort of death or fate mechanic for below 0 hit points. You roll a die to determine if you’re dead, bleeding out, or stable. This is because the hit that dropped you might not have been a lethal one, and it’s difficult for others to tell, sometimes, if you survived the hit or if you’re gonna die if left unaided. Losing consciousness by violence is never a good thing, but it can be extremely unpredictable. Sometimes you wake up with no obvious ill effects, sometimes you end up in a coma for days or weeks or years.
(The moral is, be careful out there, and watch your hit points. If you’re getting low, extricate yourself from the situation.)
Well then, what does Healing Magic do?
Don’t mind me, just taking care of this bullet wound. (Art Tomb Raider 2013, Crystal Dynamics)
For some, healing magic represents some unseen magical force that reknits your tissue, sets broken bones, closes wounds, etc. And kind of it does–it certainly CAN do that.
But to me, the effect of healing magic is to soothe your aches and fill you with revitalizing energy. It lets you fight on longer and harder than you otherwise would. It restores your hit points which, remember, are a measure of your fighting ability and stamina, not your actual health. A healing potion is more like a Red Bull than some sort of wound antidote.
(Particularly if you’re drinking a flying potion. That gives you wings. Eh? Eh? I’ll show myself out.)
And when you use your muscles in a battle, you create small tears and strains in those muscles. That’s how you build muscle mass: you work the muscles, stretching and tearing them, and they grow back stronger and bigger. Healing magic expedites the recovery process–basically, your muscles rebuild instantaneously (to the extent of the healing spell).
If you receive a healing spell when you’re down, it does basically the same thing–heals that strained muscle tissue, suppresses pain, reknits flesh, etc. But the most important thing is that it puts you back on your feet to continue the fight. Just as it would do if you never left your feet.
You don’t really have hit points–you have a fighting status.
I once had a brilliant 4e D&D DM who kept track of our characters’ hit points–we never knew our exact hit points–and only gave us updates on our status based on hits.
- At 100% HP, the character is uninjured.
- 75% to 99% HP? Bruised.
- 51% to 74%? Winded.
- 25-50%? Bloodied.
- 11% to 25%? Injured.
- 1% to 10%? Grievously injured and about to go down.
- And of course 0 HP is unconscious.
I do something like this in my games, too, though I’m happy to have PCs track their own HP. What I’m saying is, you only really get *bloodied* in my games when you’re at half hit points or lower, and it’s not really a major wound that you take.
Um…. cleric? (Art by Rodrigo Gonzalez, 2013)
D&D 4e did this, and I think that was one of the best things to come out of it. It’s that turning point in a fight where you take the first wound and have to react to it in some way. The fighter takes a wound across his exposed thigh and staggers, barely blocking the next blow, then winces and takes stock of his dire situation. The barbarian retreats from a hammer strike to her midsection, spits blood, and her frenzied smile broadens into something truly terrifying. Etc. These moments of drama are important in a story, and I think RPGs are fundamentally about telling a collaborative story.
When you’re low on HP (around 25% or lower, say), I’ll say your character is wavering.
When you’re at 0 HP exactly, you are disabled–reduced in the actions you can take and a stiff breeze could put you down.
When you’re below 0 HP, you’re unconscious and possibly injured and possibly dying.
A note about Attack Rolls: Power vs. Consistency
Gaining levels and gaining a higher attack bonus doesn’t necessarily mean you’re just luckier or that you’re a better warrior. Or, perhaps, it *does* mean that, but in the sense that a better warrior is more consistent than a n00b, and that’s what a higher attack bonus represents.
Take your standard guard in medium armor (AC 15). A starting fighter (level 1) is going to hit this guard, eh, about 50% of the time (+4 attack bonus, roll an 11 or better, that’s 50% odds). An experienced fighter, however (level 5, say) might hit the guard 75% of the time (with a +9 attack bonus), which is a pretty reliable rate. A masterful fighter (level 10) might hit the guard 95% of the time (+14 attack bonus), and make super short work of the guard.
Any kid with a sharpened stick can get in a lucky hit (roll a 20), but it takes training and practice to hit well, pretty much every time. And that’s what a higher attack bonus translates to.
This is also why I think defense should go up as you get higher in level, to reflect your ability to reduce being hit to match, but D&D chooses to represent this by increased hit points. It’s not that you are able to avoid being hit, exactly, but more like you know how to lessen the impact and minimize the damage.
It’s just a flesh wound, promise…. (artist unknown [?])
To me, hit points are more about fighting prowess than health or vitality or something like that. There’s stamina involved–how long you can keep fighting when you’re taking hits–but mostly it’s about skill and experience. The more fights you’ve been in, the better a fighter you become. It’s just like anything else–practice, practice, practice.
Example: The Paladin and the Thief
I read a story once about a D&D game in which the DM had a PC who was playing a 5th level paladin (50-60 hit points or so) and a gang of 1st level bandits who ambushed the party. The paladin, being brave and boisterous and arrogant as paladins are wont to do (see my previous entries about Lawful Alignments and the pitfalls of playing a paladin). The bandits threaten to kill them all if they don’t hand over their gold. The paladin’s player takes a quick look at his hit points, opens his arms wide, and say “ha ha, take your best shot, knave! I’ll not even resist!”
The DM rules that the bandit walks up, slits the paladin’s throat, and the paladin dies on the spot. (He was telling us this story to ask whether that was “fair” to his players.)
Now. If you’re playing a game based on gritty realism, then yeah, probably that’s totally fine, and maybe the game should allow for that. You as a DM can always rule that a coup d’ grace is an automatic death blow, regardless of the target’s HP–but if you do, watch yourself, because the heroes WILL exploit that ruling. Next time they sneak up on a sleeping dragon and coup d’ grace it, your whole campaign will unravel.
To an extent, that’s what critical hits are for: in D&D, if you inflict a coup d’ grace on a helpless target (or someone not defending himself), then it inflicts an automatic critical hit. Which is typically enough to kill a regular person.
But if you’re playing a game about pulp or epic heroes, then you’re probably not dealing with normal people. That bandit who slit the paladin’s throat? Maybe he was TRYING to slit the paladin’s throat, but the paladin was just so tough and quick that he jerked aside and the bandit only cut him shallowly or missed the artery. Maybe the knife even broke off against his skin. Maybe the paladin is bleeding copiously but still fighting, because he still has some HP left. But basically, the deathblow didn’t happen, because the character still has hit points to chew through.
Guns and exploding damage weapons do this as well. A gun typically inflicts d10 damage, and if you roll a 10, you roll again. You could in theory keep rolling 10s and one-shot anything. That’s something to consider when rolling a critical hit.
Think about what you’re trying to simulate.
Gritty D&D Coup d’Grace
I’m gonna recommend a one-hit kill rule, if you want to use it in your games.
I call it the “Wade Grimdark” rule.
It comes up when a character for some reason can’t *use* their hit points. Can’t put up a fight, can’t brace for a blow, can’t resist, etc. If that’s the case, give the attacker an automatic critical hit, and compare the damage to the character’s Constitution score. If it meets or exceeds the CON score, the character is reduced immediately to 0 hit points and is dead or dying, depending on how you resolve such things in your game. If the damage *doesn’t* meet or exceed the CON score, multiple the damage inflicted by half the character’s level (round up) and reduce their hit points by that amount. Then proceed as normal.
For instance: Bandit hits the helpless 5th level paladin and inflicts 14 damage. If the paladin’s CON score is 14 or lower, the paladin dies instantly. If the paladin’s CON is 15 or higher, the paladin takes 42 damage (not quite enough to drop him) and is still in the game.
Just a suggestion.
What do Hit Points represent to you?
How do you do health/HP in your games?
What sort of games do you prefer?
To you prefer armor to increase defense or soak damage?
Wikipedia has a thing on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_(gaming)
Jonathan Tweet–a good friend and smart guy: https://plus.google.com/+JonathanTweet/posts/LXCKdDqaZUy
One of the thousands of online discussions about the topic: https://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/63613/hit-dice-vs-hit-points