Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Using Hit Points to Mess with Your Players

What are hit points?

The DM’s Guide defines hit points as “The number of points of damage a creature can sustain before death (or optionally, coma), reflecting the character’s physical endurance, fighting experience, skill or luck.”

I have discussed this before ... but admittedly I got distracted by the problem on how to assign hit points, as opposed to what they actually were.

However we may quibble about this definition, we may propose that in D&D the character is an entity made up of corporeal and electrical functions that enable action.  Damage is that which disrupts the integrity of these functions.  When integrity is reduced to zero, the character dies.

The difficulty is that D&D fails to ascribe any effects at all to the loss of hit points except death.  You are either alive or you are dead.  If you have 1 hit point, you are alive.  If you have no hit points, you are dead.  If you are alive, you function at 100% capability.  If you are dead, you function at 0% capability.  It is very black and white.

I have written rules in the past that have attempted to provide a little grey.  This, however, still doesn't explain why a character has the same combat offensiveness at 1 hit point that they had at 30.

The most direct, accurate explanation is that this is a game, dumbass ... and games include all sorts of rules which have little or nothing to do with reality.  Why is it I have to randomly stay at hotels in Monopoly?  Can't I just walk down the street to where the rooms are cheaper?  How is it that it takes the same amount of time in RISK for an army to cross Western Europe as it does North Africa?  Why do the East Indies, Madagascar and Mongolia produce the same number of armies as Northern Europe, Japan and the Eastern United States?  How come I can't change what I do for a living in the Game of Life?  Why does the game end once I've made it to Millionaire Acres?  Don't millionaires get married, have children and potentially wind up in the Poor House too?  Do I die when I become a millionaire?

On some level, I think people are a little more than mildly stupid when this sort of problem with a game is exhaustively analyzed.  Still, I've got some energy, so let's haul it on the slab and gut that puppy.

In the traditional game, if you have 100 hit points, you're going to last longer than a couple of rounds - there are no processes for decimating that many hit points in a single blow.  Critical hits and such were added later ... and that does enable you to have a moment of bad "luck" and lose a massive number in a short period of time.  So it is possible that hit points represent a statical time period (average damage sustained per round vs. total hit points) before anyone actually lands a blow on you that will kill.  When they do land that blow, you die (or you slip into the negatives).

The trouble is that players are aware of how many hit points remain ... which means they can effectively foretell the future; "I haven't been hit up to now, but if I spend three more rounds, I'm dead!"  The only way to truly get out of that headspace is to A) never tell the characters how many hit points they have; B) never tell them how much "damage" their hit points have suffered.  This would be a very strange way to run ... and might seriously mess with the player's headspace.  Just imagine.

You have hit points, which increase with level ... but you never really know how many you have.

You take "damage" that is not actually physical - just a lot of really close calls and weapons that hit your shield or armor really hard.  You maybe get a nick or cut, to tell you you're in a fight - but you have no idea if this nick or cut represents a loss of 10 hit points or 1, and you have NO IDEA if 10 hit points is something you can afford to lose right now, or not.

Then, if you really want to FUCK with the player's head, don't tell them when damage has occurred.  Play the game so that the nick of a sword doesn't necessarily cause damage ... that's just more general fluff for the campaign world's "feel."

Every round you stay in battle, in that system, is going to bring a level of panic that doesn't exist in the game ... particularly since you don't know if you've taken damage or not.  If you've been swinging now for ten or twelve rounds, you're going to get fucking nervous, even if you're seventh or eighth level.  Shit, do you have 70 hit points still?  Have you even lost a single point?  Or are you actually at 3 points right now, and you're going down any second?  You just don't know.  You'll never know.

Which, if you're going for simulation, IS the shit, baby.  Just watch players second guess themselves and run from combats when they can't look at a character sheet and compute their odds with hard facts.  Still, the reality, o gentle readers, is that in the middle of a combat YOU DON'T KNOW.  You haven't any idea, not really.  You could imagine that after breaking your arm, you're probably not long for the slaughter fest.  Yet until you've actually been hurt, well guess what:  1 hit point IS exactly the same as 30 hit points, with regards to your combat ability.  Which is the D&D idea.

It isn't wrong because the system is irrational.  It's wrong because your character knows a lot more than your character should know.


Butch said...

I love the idea of "mystery hit points." I'm a big subscriber to the idea -- and I believe you're not -- that hit points are largely luck and skill, not a pure representation of physical health or strength. If it was merely physical, the same sword slash that would kill an 18-year-old recruit (1st level) would also kill a 40-year-old general (10th level).

Obviously it is some combination of the three -- luck, skill, and physical health. My thought is that the hit points you get at 1st level, that's purely physical. And as the player, you would know how many HPs you have.

As you gain levels, you gain hit points, not because you're getting physically bigger or stronger, but because you're accumulating luck and skill. But THOSE hit points -- the hit points you gain at each level -- are known only to the DM.

So you'd know how many HP you started with, say 10. You know your Constitution, so you know your HP bonus. You can figure out, roughly, your HP minimum and maximum, but you won't know exactly.

Love it.

Alexis said...

Why would you need to know at all? You know you're alive; that proves you have some ... knowing the original number only degrades the experience.

Not you so much Butch, but people commenting on reddit don't seem to understand that I'm saying losing 8 hit points isn't "physical" at all. You're not losing "health." There's luck, but that's the dice, not the hit points. What's being lost is TIME ... the number of times your higher level character avoids the critical blow (taking hit point damage INSTEAD), before the critical blow lands - the one that reduces the character to cripple (minus hit points) or dead (below -9).

Thus, as the combat goes on, and as damage is done, the players just don't know ANYTHING. They feel exactly the same - dodging, fighting, killing, whatever, but not actually especially feeling fatigued or reduced in physicality. This is the actual experience of combat ... not incremental reductions, but rather, "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine - oh fuck I've lost my leg!"

Eric said...

Then what exactly is healing, magical or otherwise, restoring? Even in the canonical "80 HP fighter down to 50 HP is tired and covered in nicks and scratches" example, it's always seemed counterintuitive that he needs multiple Cure Light Wounds/healing potions/salves/weeks of rest to get back up to full, where much less healing will restore a grievously wounded first level character to full health. With most hit points being that non-physical and luck-related, why wouldn't they be all recovered in a good night's rest, as in the D&D Next playtest materials?

Alexis said...


Gosh, you're right Eric. I am so chagrined! It does take time and a lot of magic to heal people! Wow ... why didn't I think of that?

But gee, let me ask - why is it an 80 hp fighter who needs his light wounds and his serious wounds and his critical wounds healed moves the same, fights the same and reacts the same at 1 hp than he does at 80?

Listen, the logic is fucked either way, isn't it? So the only thing that really matters is how exciting and interesting is the game!

The reason I haven't written a post about what hit points ARE until now is because I don't give a shit! Surprise! But its nice to know that I can always count on people arguing "logically" about something that it's impossible to argue logically about.

The above post was written in the interest of being interesting. I know, I know ... that does tend to baffle people.

Eric said...

Well, you have your handy-dandy stunning rule still. The badly-wounded fighter with 80 hit points fully healed is going to spend a time staggering around instead of fighting, isn't he?

So two points:

1) Why not pick out a less logically-fucked model? Hit points were certainly a useful approximation when everything had to be handy for paper-and-pencil calculations. Might it be worthwhile to consider something more nuanced with the ready availability of computers at the table? Or is the implication with hit points that "all non-fatal injuries are equally recoverable, back to full health and function" just too handy of an assumption for game purposes?

2) How would it change things if a player's level acted as a multiplier for healing effects? Maybe use (2+level)/3 as a multipler for any healing effect? This will make combat more survivable for higher level characters, but prevent "my character spends 8 rounds after the combat smearing himself from head to toe in healing salve until he feels lucky again."

Alexis said...


Were you under the misapprehension that this post is about the elimination of hit points?

Because it's not.

But this is an example of the sort of off-topic comments I sometimes don't allow.

Oddbit said...

A game needs a way to lose. Hit points created one that was attached to the character. One that a player could see coming, could counteract and could understand easily. They are successful for just a few of those reasons, and that is why they are used in DnD, Card Games, Video Games, Board Games and more...

Though you may not notice it every time video games frequently hide the real number behind a curtain, and give you different ways to see them.

Though usually it's because they value "realism" or "immersion" more than clarity in player status.

Derrick said...

I'm not sure that this improves the simulation. If D&D "simulates" anything, it's pulp, not real life. As I recall, "Gods of Mars" has a passage where John Carter realizes that, while he hasn't been seriously injured yet, fatigue and blood loss from flesh wounds have caught up with him and he won't last much longer fighting. It would not surprise me to find similar sections in other pulp works.

The Recursion King said...

Hitpoints are known to the players because the approach of death in battle is known intuitively by the characters. They can /feel/ their reserves are running low.

Alexis said...

What an enormous pile of dingo's feces that is! Grateful to who? You? These two guys who lifted a ton of material from earlier gamesters? All the hundreds of unnamed players in the 1960s, who came out of wargames/military strategy games taught in R.O.T.C. in the 1950s?

Maybe I should be grateful to the guy who invented the crapper, where Recursion's comment belongs.

If we're going to look at the past in terms of our constant vigilant gratefulness, how the fuck are we going to improve anything in the future?

Alexis said...

And while I'm at it, I consider one of the best stocked cupboards of human ignorance is the attitude some people have that IF such-and-such hadn't invented a thing, it would NEVER have been invented. Do we really think that science or knowledge is so dependent on the mind of one individual that we would have remained completely ignorant forever? Honking bullshit in the extreme.

I may not be playing D&D right now, but I played wargames for years before I ever heard of D&D, and I worked in theatre for a decade - I think I could count on someone putting these things together by now.