Friday, October 29, 2010

Goal Posts

The hit point system in D&D is the worst combat simululation ... except for all the others.

In spite of my last post, I actually quite like the HP system.  My primary argument was that too few hit points were impractical in terms of the potential damage that NPC's, particularly zero levels, ought to be able to withstand.  It isn't that I don't imagine some people would have 1 hp, given medical or physical conditions ... but to argue that all non-combative persons should have less than 5 hp is ridiculous, from a game-challenge point of view.

But this post is not inspired by the very good argument that went on yesterday.  I want to answer a question from Carl, who asked if I equated physical damage to HP.  As he says, the logic of the D&D approach "...breaks down rapidly as characters level up, and I think it starts with HP too low at 0 or 1st level."

I do equate HP to physical damage, as I've made clear in previous posts.  But just to recap my basic premise here, I don't see severe damage occurring until getting down to the last few hit points that a character has.  Up until then it is nicks, cuts and bruises, or at least nothing which disables the combat value of the participant.

This means that I view the original hit points that a character receives to be mostly made up of body mass and physical condition, and later hit points gained to be made up of quickness and experience.  Allow me to demonstrate by metaphor.

Now, I wish I had a better one, but hopefully this will do the trick.  Consider, if you will, the game of hockey.  The net is a rather small target, made smaller by the presence of the goalie, and its easy to miss.  But as you improve your aim and your overall ability to play (and control the bouncing, annoying puck), it gets easier and easier to hit that net.  In fact, if you consider the task in terms of perception, the net posts get wider and wider, the better you play.

If I can apply this to hit points.  The goal posts are, effectively, the first hit point and the last hit point possessed by the character.  While the character's level increases, it is not the physical body that takes more damage, but rather that weapons and attacks upon the player are lessened in comparison.  In other words, the sword might touch the arm of a 1st level fighter and it might touch the arm of a 10th level fighter, but the higher level will have learned how to sweep the sword aside in combat without being cut, while the lower level will get cut every time.

Another way to think about it would be to say that the weapons do less and less damage to higher level characters ... but game-wise, this is impractical.  You can't be asking, what die do I roll for a long sword against an 8th level ranger?  There's too many possibilities, and the dice are not flexible enough.  By increasing the hit points instead, we can pin-point the reduced effects of every weapon (and spell) at one and the same time.

Thus, while Armor Class may not change, and it may be as easy to hit a 10th level fighter in chain as a first level fighter, it is much harder to make a significant blow against the 10th level.  And as hit points go up, the significance of each blow is lessened.

This seems eminently simple to me.  Whereas hit tables and even the time-to-death table I made mention of in my previous post are really impractical where it comes to complicated, extensive combat scenarios.

Once again, I wasn't so much bad-mouthing the use of hit points, but instead insisting that ordinary individuals deserved, on the whole, a greater survival potential than a mere d4.


Wickedmurph said...

That's basically exactly what I was going to say about it. It's also a big part of the reason that some of the more recent D&D systems, like 3e or 4e, break down into superhero play at mid-high levels.

They are trying to use both AC and HP to do the same thing, creating a compounding effect that makes character exponentially more powerful.

As characters get to higher levels in those systems, they get magic items and skills which raise their AC, making them harder to hit. And they also get more HP, making them harder to damage. But really, having more HP makes it harder to land a really damaging hit anyways, so we have a situation where characters are very difficult to hurt/kill, unless you get into save effects.

Also, Alexis, I'd be really interesting in reading your thoughts on the role of church/clerics in a society where magical healing is a common/effective tool. My thought is that it would significantly change the sociological structure of a medieval society.

Maroon said...

This is pretty much how I envision hit points to work in the usual terminology of "hit" and "damage". It isn't always how I play the game, but it's the best way to explain regular D&D combat. Just because 6 points of damage gets a 1st level fighter run through, doesn't mean a 2nd level fighter can get run through twice, and doesn't mean a sword only goes halfway through on 3 points of damage.

How do you handle missile attacks, though? Do high level fighters turn into pincushions, or do most missiles actually "miss" on a "hit"?

"Also, Alexis, I'd be really interesting in reading your thoughts on the role of church/clerics in a society where magical healing is a common/effective tool."

Me too. I'm also interested how magical healing actually works in your games. If 6 points of damage is just a scratch to one but a deep wound to another, what does 6 points of healing do? How does hit point recovery in general play out?