Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Discussing D&D (2) – Understanding and dealing with Hit Points

- Hit Points: how to deal with them in games? -

(Summary TL;DR)

. When D&D appeared, there were no concrete definition of what Hit Points were – except in the vague notion that it represents how much damage one could receive before dieing. However, with the constant discussion, already in AD&D there was the definition – still used in new editions of D&D – that Hit Points meant not only toughness, but also 'luck', 'skill', 'magic' and any other capacity to evade damage.

. Hit Points have a subtle distinction between those earned by Character Classes and Monster Levels. Those earned by Classes normally mean what was said above, as 'luck', 'skill' and 'magic'; while a monster's Hit Points meant their size, toughness and fortitude.

. To deal with problems regarding Hit points (like the classic 'one dagger to the neck means only 1d4 damage1), the players must discuss about how they will deal with it, in a more realistically way or more fantastical.


As I discussed previously, when I talked about THAC0 and AC, there are many doubts regarding the coherence (or lack of it) in D&D's combat system. However, many times those doubts happen because of a lack of knowledge regarding the 'theory', or I could say the logic behind the game rules. In this post, I will talk about another such polemic topic in D&D's combat: the Hit Points.

At the beginning, with the first iterations of D&D (during the times when its rules were still joined together with those of Chainmail), Hit Points were described as simply 'how much damage a monster or character may suffer before dieing'. There were no further elaboration of what could Hit Points mean in a more concrete way in the game world. After more books were being published, around AD&D there was already a very clear definition:

"Each character has a varying number of hit points,' just as monsters do.
These hit points represent how much damage (actual 01: potential) the
character can withstand before being killed. A certain amount of these hit
points represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained.
The remainder, a significant portion of hit points at higher levels, stands
for skill, luck, and/or magical factors."

(taken from AD&D 1 st edition, pg 34)

So, Hit Points (HP) start to represent something that could be said as 'heroic points', expressing the capacity of a character to ignore, withstand, escape and survive damage. But, it is important to notice that this conception refers specially to those Hit Points conferred by Character Classes. In regards to monsters, many times the hit points represent its giant size and capacity to sustain damage. Therefore, a warrior with 50 Hp and a Giant with 50 Hp have different ways to interpret how they take the damage they receive.

For the warrior, that would mean that he evades, block, dodges, or maybe by magic and luck the damage is nullified. For the giant, his great size and constitution would have absorbed the damage taken through scratches and wounds. Looking things by that point of view, we have the same word – Hit Points – covering two different subjects: the hit points for monsters (resistance, toughness, size) and for character classes (luck, skill, magic) that, although they have the same mechanical weight, they have different narrative aspects. And one could say that a Giant who has levels as a warrior would have 'both' kinds of HP – hit point and heroic point.

With those things said, this takes us to a big question: how to deal with those 'heroic points' that characters have? Because, if a killer is able, let's suppose, to hold a 50 hp warrior with a knife by his throat, there is nothing impeding the warrior's player to say: 'a dagger causes only 1d4, and I have 50 hp. I can take that damage and hit the assassin back'. Or, in another situation, watching a band of robbers running away down a cliff, the same player could say: 'I will jump the cliff, take at most 30 damage, and will be able to intercede the running robbers'.

One HP is enough HP
There is no one answer on how to deal with such situations. On my case, I propose two possibilities: the first is to use 'common reality sense'. Hit points are just an abstraction, specially connected with combat. When out of combat, the common sense should prevail. A dagger to the neck kills; jumping off a cliff either kills or severely hurts. The second possibility is to accept the fantastical reality and say that the characters are supernatural. In the same way that Goku, in the anime Dragon Ball, is able to withstand cosmic blows with his 'ki', the player characters are able to do so because of magic or luck. So, a dagger to the neck would not kill.

In both situations, it's important that all players discuss about what kind of game they want, what kind of REALITY inside the game they want. For example, in my Old School games I normally opt for the second option and I accept the player character's as magical and awesome creatures. If there is a need to see if a particular attack was lethal or not (like a dagger to the neck), I roll a saving throw; but usually I just accept that the characters are heroic beings with 'cthulhian' fortitude and supernatural biology. And, particularly, I love the epic idea of the warrior intercepting the robbers by jumping off the cliff.

Well, what do you people think about this question? How do you deal with Hit Points in your games? Comment and add to the discussion.

Until then,

Post Scriptum:

Don't forget seeing the Aftermath, what the readers discussed and said about Hit Points

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  1. You can use "common sense" to fix HP on the fly. But eventually you'll find that you aren't using HP any more. They just don't make sense given the knife and cliff examples you give, plus countless other situations.

    1. Well, it all depends on the intentions of the gaming group and the kind of stories they want to tell. I player a Lamentations of the Flame Princess (OSR system) where I accepted HP as basically 'non-euclydian biology'. So all characters were kind of 'monsters'. With that, they were able to survive falls, stabs to the neck have a thousand wailling creatures ripping them from the inside and stuff like that. If I considered HP to be more like 'skill' or 'luck', they would just be dead out of all those things.

      I find HP a concept to be adapted to the game you wanna play, and one of the most interesting concepts in gaming since its creation, = )