Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tougher than d4

People have this rather silly idea that human beings - especially 'normal' human beings - are easy to kill.  For example, this post from JB's blog, B/X Blackrazor, explains that normal human beings are those that are non-heroic, non-adventuring and non-combat-worthy.  These people only have 1 to 4 hit points, says JB, and why?  Because, quote, "They can all be killed, fairly easily, by the single blow of a hand weapon."

I'm a little confused by that.  Particularly when I consider the story of Michel Auger, a journalist who was shot six times in the back during an attack outside his newspaper office in the year 2000, and yet managed to survive.  Three of the bullets that hit him were so deep that doctors were unable to remove them.  Impressive, since Auger was 56 at the time he was shot.  Then again, bullets aren't really very dangerous, are they?

That story was the first thing that occurred to me upon reading JB's post ... and it's hardly unique.  The Biography Channel (I don't own a television, but I found it with 90 seconds of research on the Internet) has a television program based on ordinary people surviving everyday events that we'd expect them to die from.

I myself once went over the handlebars of a bike, down a twenty-foot cliff, landing on the top of my spine right between my shoulders (I tucked my head).  But I'm sure that wasn't more than 1 hit point of damage.

I think that an open forum asking people to tell tales of when they were stabbed or shot or struck would get an impressive array of answers, which would bring into question whether it was 'fairly easy' to kill us.

Fat and lazy we may be, but the human body is a surprisingly resilient machine where it comes to taking damage.  When we consider the most widespread cause of weapon damage, War, we must remember that most of the time it is not the weapon that kills.  Human beings do not have half their arm blown away by a bullet and then fall down dead.  What they do is fall down, bleeding, suffering, and usually for a long, long time.  This is one of the wonders that has made medical practice on the battlefield remarkably possible.  We don't die at once.  We can be shipped, packed with bandages, and even stored while waiting our turn to be surgically operated on.  It's called triage.  It says that yes, you've just lost your leg, but you're strong enough to wait five hours because we've got to work on this guy's chest, and then that guy's belly.  Here's some pills, we'll get right to you.

So realistically, characters and NPC's ought to be designated a 'time variable' to indicate how long it will take them to die from a particular weapon blow.  Because, after all, if the person can be gotten to a cleric with cure critical wounds within that variable time frame, it shouldn't matter what damage they've soaked up.  If a 20th century healer with drugs and tools can sort out your perforated lung, chipped liver and loose arteries with hard work after shuttling you ten miles from the nearest battlefield (never a comfortable trip), a bit of magic ought to manage nicely.

The problem with these rather thoughtless hit point proposals, that a human being can take this damage or that damage because I've sat cleverly in my chair without any medical training and said so, is that the only contribution they make to the game is to further videofy it.  Hey, player, don't worry about farmers and bakers, or that scribe, you can butcher them without much trouble because you're a Great He-Man Hero.  Swing your sword once and snickity-snick, they're done for!  My my, it's like cutting down weeds, say what?

Well, you know what, fuck that.  You just go ahead and try to put that sword into my 62-year-old uncle's gut.  He's done nothing all his life but drive a tractor and milk cows, just like all the other farmers in that part of the world, but somehow I think when he grabs your hero's throat in one hand - the hand that's as big as both of mine put together - you're going to get a big fucking surprise.

Hands that resent adventure, haven't killed anyone and lack heroics

Physically, human beings ... even normal ones ... are capable of all kinds of miracles.  Shove that up your d4 hit points.


Todd said...

See, the thing is that he's playing a game.

TrentB said...

100% agree.

In almost every war ever the wounded have outnumbered the dead by multitudes, and these are situations in which people are trying to kill one another with the best tools available for doing so in the era.

Ok that last bit isn't entirely true - often weapons were designed or selected because of a variety of practical capabilities, or because of financial concerns (eg NATO 5.56mm), but the weapons are clearly of military design and deadly purpose.

It is extremely difficult to kill someone with one attack under perfect circumstances, even moreso when they are defending themselves. Admittedly a round is usually more than 6 seconds and in that time it's entirely possible to wound a person and then deliver a coup de grace, but even so, instant death is difficult to achieve. Best case you may render them unconscious due to shock etc and they die before they wake, but that takes time. Time in which even rudimentary medical attention can save lives.

There are many examples of people receiving gunshot wounds to the head (in Afghanistan) who not only survive, but remain conscious with fractured skulls, bullets lodged in their heads etc etc.

This also applied to Save or Die. There are like zero poisons in the natural world that kill a person in less than 6 (or 10) seconds, so it makes no sense to me for that to be an option in-game. I don't even know of any chemical or manmade poison that work that quickly.

Anyway, clearly I'm not adding anything to the discussion, but I'm supporting your argument because I think it is extremely relevant and often overlooked.

Anthony said...

That is one thing I like about your methodology, that not every NPC is just a 1st or "0th" level waiting to be killed. In your "Time vs Experience" calculation, even a farmer hardened by a long life will have picked up a couple levels and be able to take a few hits.

Alexis said...


See, the thing is he's playing an awfully lame game, and I'm trying to play a complex one.


Youre adding loads to the discussion.

Zzarchov said...

I would question if a d4 hitpoints is really that little.

Keep in mind that a Dagger (not a steak knife: a 1 foot long steel blade three fingers wide) jabbed into a 0th level farmer in D&D by a trained warrior has less than even odds of killing that farmer. And his odds of even hitting that farmer are 50/50. Now that farmer also has a chance to act, with a shovel in hand it's not too far out there that the farmer will win (depending on how you allow critical hits).

And if you allow the old "dead at -10", it keeps going. Now keep in mind in current games (I consider 3e current) stat creep means most 1st level players have a bunch of +'s to hit and damage, HP and AC.. but thats to go with the super-hero image of the later games.

Zak S said...

Leaving aside realism for a second (just a second, promise) I think tough "normals" HAVE to be a hallmark of the kind of game Alexis plays (as far as I can see it): the world IS the enemy, and the PCs are small fish in a big pond. It's a noiry/crime fictiony world where negotiating the everyday is a challenge. Everything should be hard--jumping from roof to roof, jumping off a rolling carriage, etc.

In a more Lovecraftian situation, the world is a sort of grey slate against which the heroes struggle against the monsters. Normal people aren't usually obstacles in these genres because every monster or outbreak of non-normality HAS to be life threatening.

I guess it boils down to the question: are you running a game where a goblin is a horrifying, reality-distorting nightmare or a thing no more or less frightening than a 2-story fall?

Al said...

Its not JB's fault that your uncle happens to be an 8th level ranger. ;)

5stonegames said...

Its D&D though and as such realism doesn't matter that much.

However I agree with the D4 rubbish and I always used the 2e NPC Hit Points anyway , a theoretically zero level laborer like your uncle would get a d8 + whatever Con he might have, if he doesn't have class levels.

Assuming Greyhawk Average Rolls and Lab Lord stat mods a +2 Con Bonus that gives him 7 hit points. Thats enough to shrug off a sword thrust or a couple of heavy cudgel blows --

I also don't assume that zero H0 is dead but hors de combat -- that happens at (minus con) so -- thats pretty close

His big fist would do 1d3+1 say -- thats about what a club would do and his club hits like a Mace (average damage 5.5)

Also note that in D&D a trained man at arms (Joe Soldier) gets only one more HP and no better a to hit chance. He just gets better AC and weapons use.

So in theory, the D&D version of your uncle might be able to handle a man at arms or a couple of ruffians (HP4) decently well.

He won't be able to handle Spec-Ops guys like high level types are though (well without luck and cunning) and that is as it should be

Alexis said...


It bothers me that you have to couch my motivation according to your misconceptions about my world - and believe me, they are misconceptions.

As a matter of fact, my world is NOT the enemy, but the players usually are. It is like the realization that hits Michael Douglas at the end of Falling Down. My world is generally quite satisfied to go its own way ... but the players, in being greedy and ambitious usually work against the current.

Things ARE a challenge in my world because, well, challenge makes a good game. The peasants are tough and dangerous because I present them as believable, and being believable they want to survive. That means they'll dig and fight back if you attack them.

This noiry/crime description originates in your own head. My own players would answer, "wtf?"

Sorry to select you out, Zak.

Addressing a rest of you out there that have drawn similar conclusions about ME from reading my blog, I don't believe that you are paying attention as you read. You're missing the point, constantly.

For those who are commenting on the actual topic at hand, without needing to fit my personality into it, thank you all for your input.

Grey said...

I think you really have to look at a middle ground and try and work from it which is hard to do. Its even harder to work with from an abstract concept as hit points which represent a whole hell of a lot more than physical injury. Heh, there is a reason a lot of people hate on them and the examples you listed are exactly why.

You need to counterbalance the points of extreme human toughness with extreme human frailty. The other side of the coin is there are just as many or more where someone who is healthy die from something stupid like a punch or tripping and falling, or getting a small cut and infection finishes them off. Get a major artery cut and without help you're done. Couple minutes on the femoral, a little more on the radial. A cut Caratid means you've got about 15 seconds until you're blacked out. Any sort of internal injury is potentially fatal depending on the organs damaged and bleeding (Deer have been brought down with pellet rifles. The lung wasn't punctured, but the hematoma that was caused by it was enough to arrest breathing.)

With that in mind, I think the question is really what type of game are you playing and how tough do you want your common people? Thats going to drastically affect the perception of it.

Todd said...

He's playing B/X D&D from the time before the internets and it sounds like his game is the opposite of lame - it sounds like it's a lot of fun actually.
You can play any game or style you prefer but you can't say that the B/X rules are lame because your uncle has large hands.
Your argument that human beings are incredibly resilient ignores the fact that they can be incredibly fragile just as easily.
It's all a model, the dice are used determine who can take a sword in the gut and live and who takes a flat hand to the nose and dies.
Also B/X is an established system not some new proposal to bolt onto your game alongside the SRD or whatever and discussing NPC hit points without context to all the other combat rules is sloppy.

Alexis said...

Ah, in that case Todd, in future I shall remember to genuflect.

If the only thing about this post that you saw was the sentence about my uncle's hands and the picture, no wonder you're confused. As that is the case, let me point out that I did not say a thing about the all-pervasive, intense, unrelenting Fun that drives the man's game. I'm sure JB's players would rather play B/X with him than spend a fantasy-filled weekend in Vegas with a stripped and chocolate-dipped Summer Glau.

This blog post, on the other hand, was about hit points. All the other people commenting here took the time to read through every paragraph before giving their opinion. I suggest you also make the effort.

Now, it is time for you to take your proprietary nerd bullshit and spew it all over your own blog. We're having a discussion here.

Alexis said...


I believe the counterbalance is achieved with the potential for weapons to do critical damage, and thus the immediate kill. I would rather increase the randomness of the weapon (which I can control more potently) than ensure that every common person is that easy to kill.

Wickedmurph said...

This is something that I have trouble with in general. As a firefighter, I've seen some pretty badly injured people who have survived (including a girl who sat in a crashed car for 7 hours before the vehicle was found).

So I think d4 is not really a good representation of the overall durability of even the slightest human.

But, it's not a bad gauge of when a person it out of the fight, functionally. I know there are people who can continue to function with a large sword cut or knife wound to the abdomen, but most people will probably fall over, curl up in shock, or try desperately to get away if such a thing happens to them. Hence the whole -10 business, I suppose.

I like the idea of a time-period. Most people in a medieval setting die from disease, blood loss and shock, all of which even a fairly low-level cleric/healer can deal with.

One little thing, though Alexis - it might be interesting for you to spend a little more time investigating how Zak defines a noir/crime setting, before writing it off as a "misconception". I've read the essay he's working from there, and it's both interesting and applicable.

And, if you really want to have a discussion, asking people to clarify is generally a better tactic than, well, telling people that they just don't get you.

Alexis said...

Perhaps, Wicked, but you seem to get me just fine. And I am stuck defining noir/crime according to several hundred movies made in the 1940s/50s, and not as Zak defines it 5 months ago. If he wanted to give me context, he should have given me the link, and not relied on others to do it for him.

I thank you greatly for your comment, by the way. Having a fireman comment here is like putting a pan in a strange river and finding a lump of gold. Most excellent!

Wickedmurph said...

True, Zak didn't provide context. I'd read his thoughts on it (although not via ESP, more's the pity), so I had that context, and therefore it seemed fairly straightforward. We do forget that not everyone shares our particular knowledge sometimes, don't we.

I was a gamer long before I was a firefighter, but the work has certainly opened my eyes to a great many things about how people behave in a crisis or when injured.

I think the best way to look at HP is as a gauge of how much fight they've got in 'em. They aren't dead when HP are gone, but they aren't functioning consciously at that point, either.

Incidentally, my grandfather also had ridiculously large, strong hands - he was a mink rancher for 50 years. It's the thing I remember most clearly about him.

Zak S said...

It's always a crapshoot deciding how much context to give here, since I want to make a point without writing a whole blog entry or being one of those guys who goes "Hey everybody, I got something to say, go look at MY blog!".

Plus, the more I talk the more I risk accidentally saying something that pisses you off.

Anyway, thanks firefighter for pointing that out. That was indeed the weird v. noiry split I was talking about.

Carl said...

Just out of curiousity, are you assuming that HP=amount of physical damage a person/creature can take?

From your examples it seems like you are, while (A)D&D at least explicitly states that HP are a measure of skill in avoiding damage, with only a small component (Constitution bonus) reflecting an actual physical hardiness.

In your bicycle example, for instance, you tucked your head and probably rolled with the impact a little, instead of landing awkwardly and snapping your kneck instantly.

I see the logic in the D&D approach but I think it breaks down rapidly as characters level up, and I think it starts with the HP too low at 0 or 1st level.

I personally like and use 1d6 HP per point of Con, and HP don't go up when you level unless CON goes up. It both allows for some damage to be taken without falling over dead, and also solves the problem of high level characters being able to chew through an army of dairy farmers and their large hands.

That way HP are directly mapped to physical damage.

I also let players try to make a second successful attack roll to do double damage, and a third to do quadruple damage, with a failure at any roll resulting in no damage.

That way a single swipe of the sword can do a LOT of damage, but it has to be a very skillfull swipe, something a higher level character would be much more likely to pull off than a lower level one (but even a 0 level commoner might get lucky and roll three good rolls in a row and kill a 23 HP fighter with a single swing of the club).

Tedankhamen said...

I always found Hit Points in old Chaosium games (i.e. my fave Stormbringer) had more versimilitude than OD&D hit points. I hesitate to use the word 'realistic' because it applies to neither OD&D nor Chaosium Hit Points.

In Stormbringer, your average bloke (10 HP, based directly off CON, and levels do not exist for anyobody) can take that d4 dagger hit (I think it was d4+1, but whatever) with no serious effects unless he gets a Major Wound, i.e. half his Hit Points gone in one blow. Major Wounds require a roll on a merciless critical injury table in addition to the loss of HP.

I think this modeled damage well because if the attacker rolled poorly (i.e. minimum damage), the victim could conceiably take 10 blows to fell. Compare this to common police reports of DV or gang knife fight cases with multiple stabbings but no death and you'll see it has a certain versimilitude.

Conversely, if the attacker gets double damage from a critical and rolls maximum damage, he does 8 (4 x 2) HP damage, necessitating a critical injury roll and leaving our poor victim with a measly 2 HP. He can still hold on until healing arrives, but he is in a perilous state until then.

Besides versimilitude, I found this avoided the 'whittle down HP slugfests' that sometimes happened in our OD&D games. It made every fight scary, and created some nice gonzo roleplaying, like a party of fighters and hunters cowering behind a 'tough' wizard in demon armor.

TrentB said...

There are some decent tables kicking around the blogosphere re: Death and Dismemberment tables which one consults upon reaching 0HP, and that's a step in the right direction in that it helps to clarify exactly what HP are, but they never really take into account the actual physical toughness of a being.

My concern about the whole 'HP are abstract and dont really represent physical damage' thing is this:

If they don't, then what do? And if you approach that with a 'Well they kind of do, but only to a limited degree and that's why it's abstract' (which is reasonable since a N/PC dies upon reaching 0HP) then there is no way to account for someone who is very physically tough vs someone who is very capable of defending themselves.

And if HP represent ones ability to defend themselves, then why is AC the target one must use to hit something? I've always thought that it would make more sense for combat to be resolved by attempting to overcome a defenders skill, not his armour. ie roll to hit targets ThAC0 and have damage mitigated by armour. But then you have to try to establish how HP work and since it's abstract does armour really reduce the damage one takes from a successful attack.

So then you end up with something like armour helping to mitigate actual physical damage and HP representing fatigue and focus or something and so you have a 'Death and Dismemberment' table upon which the roll is reduced by the magnitude of ones armour, but basically by then the whole thing is becoming very confusing and very not-actually-DnD.

Which is why I'm making my own ruleset (who isnt), but that's irrelevant.

In (any of) the original rules, there isn't any significant mention of wounding, the effects of wounding, damaged limbs/organs/whatever. Nor long term injury etc. Except maybe that strange ADnD 2E skills and powers critical hit table thing or wherever it was, and that sucked a bit.

You may have gathered that I'm not a fan of DnD style HP as a resource, which is true, and that's because it creates all of the grey areas that lead to these discussions.

I'm sorry for turning this into a 'ZOMG HP SUX" thread.

Oh one last thing: Grey mentioned exsanguination times for the opening of several major arteries... These are obviously all fatal, and some of the quickest deaths one can experience, but you'll notice that (quite correctly) they are in the magnitude of minutes and even in the case of carotid arteries ~ 15 seconds. 15 seconds is still 2 or 3 rounds.

It takes time to die from even the most fatal of wounds. And from a gaming perspective its dramatic as hell having someone bleed out when you can't stop it, although from a realistic perspective it's really damn disappointing and sad... maybe they're just trying to keep the game light and simple.

This rambling and barely coherent post was brought to you by:

Outslu. apparently.

Tom said...

My own style has been, for quite a while now, that someone at 0 hp or less was dying.
If they had more hp than the negative of their con score they could be fixed with standard 'cure wounds' spells.
If they had taken more damage than this they required a 'Cure Mortal Wounds' spell, which replaced the Raise Dead spell, within one day per point of constitution or the character died.
A mortally wounded character was unable to defend themselves but could whisper, pass on a scroll/map, point out who killed them etc.
If someone was willing to take the time to do so, a mortally wounded character could also be finished off, making them really and truly dead (even if it took a while) and beyond 'mere' 5th level magic to rescue.
It's worked well for me, and has solved the 'the messenger dies after passing on his message but before you can get a cure light into him' scenario that my players so loathed.

TheGrumpyCelt said...

These fanciful notions cannot (easily) be replicated in a D&D game, of "high adventure" where the characters and only the characters are supposed to be special. It is a problem of game mechanics and thematic conflict.

TrentB said...

@TheGrumpyCelt I agree with you to a point.... But I would say that thematic conflict is very important in this particular game and that it is definitely not beyond human ability to create an effective and efficient game mechanic that allows for it.

Thus I suggest that the source of said problem is the mechanic itself. But again, this is somewhat digressing from the topic of HP for 'normal' NPCs in DnD and as such I apologise =]

Grey said...

My listing of various bleed out times (or time to unconciousness in the case of the caratid) was just to demonstrate what relatively simple arterial damage can do. The reality is that engagements are going to go substancially quicker before someones out of the fight... because it's going to be multiple hits in conjunction and everyone is going to be attempting to disrupt the CNS is most cases.

With a small weapons this means disabling or checking on the way in until you can affect the neck or head. With longer weapons you can cut right to the chase, the trauma is substancially higher due to wound channel. They're still not likely to "die" immediately, but incapacitation can occur in a fingersnap. I would put 10-15 seconds as a relatively long time to be a long time to be engaged in actual combat. Armour tips the favor in one side or the other possibly heavily - depending on what the combatants are using for weapons... but dosen't especially drag out the engagement time unless we're talking gothic plate. (I don't count dueling here, as they have time to feel each other out.)

TrentB said...

Grey - Oh definitely definitely... I should clarify that my concern is that in DnD (and others) people die immeditately upon reaching 0 hp whereas what should be happening is they are incapacitated and dying (as you described just now).

Also the amount of time from incapacitated to dead can vary greatly, eg incapacitated due to slashed throat vs incapacitated due to being hamstrung. Especially considering the prevalence of leg wounds in historical combats (as far as people can guess from graves etc).

Anonymous said...

d4 hit points is very silly, or cinematic; depending on your preferences. d4 HP is good for mooks who are only there to slow down the marauder, but don't make much sense compared to how many HP a level 10 wizard has. I cannot suspend disbelief when operating under that idea (d4 hit points). I'm a fan of the d20 Warheart stuff from:
Where the author tries to capture the 'grimness' of WHFRP using d20 rules (albeit something like 3e).

JB said...

Huh...I completely missed this post when you made it earlier.

While I can see where you're coming from, consider this: would the "normal human" shot six times have survived without the "healing magic" of medical care in the year 2000? Even without removing the bullets, I'm sure there were certain medical measures that were taken to save his life...and I contend that if he were left on the floor of dank dungeon in a pile of ancient goblin feces withOUT clerical support, he probably would not have survived.

Your uncle might be able to survive a sword thrust through the belly, but he probably wouldn't be going anywhere under his own strength (unless he really were an exceptional and strong-willed a PC adventurer in D&D!), and would probably bleed out without "clerical assistance."

At least that's how I see the game modeling pain and suffering...for what it's worth I DO feel D&D is more cinematic/heroic than "real life." It models what I want to play in a game.
: )

Anonymous said...

Carl - I like your idea of HD per point of Con - I'm going to play around with this and see if I can make it work. I hate to admit it, but I've always been partial to the d20 Star Wars vitality/wound point system, which works fairly well for keeping combat a scary thing for players(something I hold near and dear to my heart), but your solution offers up a nice clean alternative, and I wouldn't need to keep reminding players that they don't do bonus damage on a critical hit.
Thank you for the tip, and my apologies to A. for nudging this post and associated comments into momentary wakefulness.

C'nor said...

I would say that the HP system represents more that it's easy to kill humans if you hit the right spot. Stabbing someone in the hand won't kill them for a while. Hitting them in the heart kills them very, very, fast indeed. I think that HP are meant to reflect not just how easy it is to physically kill them, but also how well trained they are to keep you from lopping off their head, or stabbing them in the kidney. That said your point is still good. Most of the peasants are at least somewhat underpowered.