Wednesday, June 15, 2011

[Article] Hit Points


Of all the game elements introduced or popularised by Dungeons & Dragons the concept of hit points has probably been the most influential and widespread, finding its way into numerous tabletop and electronic games alike. The origin of the mechanism likely lies in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement where the superior fighting capability of heroes, wizards and monsters is represented by making them individually equivalent to multiple figures. For instance, a hero is worth four figures of any type, a wizard is equal to two armoured foot, or if mounted two medium horse, whilst a giant attacks as twelve heavy foot and defends as twelve armoured foot (or twelve heavy foot according to Fantasy Reference Table on p. 43). In each case, these powerful combatants are normally only slain after suffering enough cumulative or simultaneous hits to kill the number of men to which they are judged to be equivalent. That these were the forerunners of hit dice can be seen most clearly in the goblin, orc and hobgoblin entries, where they are indicated to attack and defend as heavy foot/light foot, heavy foot/heavy foot, and armoured foot/heavy foot, respectively, which is a relationship later reflected in their hit die ratings of 1−1, 1 and 1+1.

At an indeterminate but early juncture hits as kills were deemed insufficiently granular for swords & sorcery adventure gaming. Instead, each man equivalent was assigned 1-6 "hit points", a successful hit inflicting 1-6 damage rather than slaying outright. This approach had the advantage of allowing the average result of an isolated hit to remain a kill, but also ensured that five-in-twelve such hits would be non-lethal. It also created the possibility that combatants with multiple hit dice might be laid low with a single blow, if they had been unlucky in their hit point determination. Because of the way hits accumulate, the introduction of hit points strengthened the less powerful creatures and weakened the greater ones. Dealing with non-fatal hits is an area where Dungeons & Dragons often comes in for criticism, as its default assumption is that hit point loss in and of itself has no further deleterious effects. Since damage is most often conceived of as the inflicting of wounds, this seems counterintuitive, but it is worth recalling that the original edition of the game did give the subject some consideration, noting that "whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee" (M&M, p. 18).

Both the first and second editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons take the time to address the issue of hit points and wounds, warning that debilitating injuries are "not the stuff of heroic fantasy" (1e DMG, p. 61) and that "characters have enough of a challenge as it is" (2e DMG, p. 74). Even so, it is nevertheless noted that this is not necessarily the case for monsters and in fact neither edition is completely opposed to the idea of inflicting specific wounds on characters. For instance, maiming is considered a viable alternative to death in cases where player characters have played well but been extraordinarily unlucky (1e DMG, p. 110), and the sword of sharpness is well known for its ability to sever limbs regardless of whether the hit points of the target have been exhausted. The hydra is a good example of a monster that suffers an injury for each hit die of damage suffered, in this case the loss of one of its heads. A more general example is extant for winged flying creatures, as it is specified that if such monsters lose more than half of their hit points they must seek to land (2e DMG, p. 78), whilst if they lose more than three-quarters of their hit points during flight they plummet to the ground (1e DMG, p. 53).

Lest we forget, the original Dungeons & Dragons game has rules for aerial combat, apparently borrowing from Fight in the Skies by Mike Carr, which involve specific body location and critical hits. Nor should the much maligned hit location system presented in Supplement II: Blackmoor, and its assignation of hit points to various body parts, be overlooked. By the same token, the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons includes a rule for handling attacks against combatants without helmets (1e DMG, p. 28), whilst the second edition discusses the inclusion of called shots (2e DMG, p. 58). Indeed, the methods by which hit points are commonly restored, such as healing magic, regeneration, or lengthy periods of rest, suggest that their loss is representative of wounds suffered, rather than luck, skill, endurance or divine protection. Whilst it might be reasonable to evade this conclusion by applying the retroactive logic that a character is not wounded unless healed, for which precedent exists with regard to saving throws against poison, such arguments are unlikely to satisfy anybody desirous of a cause and effect relationship. As with other elements in the Dungeons & Dragons combat system, hit points oscillate between having abstract and specific qualities.

In reality, any wound significant enough to impair fighting ability is likely to take an individual out of the combat they were involved in. On the other hand, the notable individuals who fight on despite injury are the very sorts that player characters are intended to emulate. Leaving things up to individual game masters as the original game does is the most coherent solution, but also runs the risk of seeming too arbitrary. The suggestion in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide that characters reduced to zero hit points suffer some sort of injury rather than being slain is attractive, especially if the negative ten optional rule is discarded or modified. A house rule used in the World of Silver Blade is that characters brought to zero hit points or below are wounded and out of the fight, suffering ongoing penalties until the injury is healed, regardless of hit point recovery. Furthermore, and partly because magic is less prevalent in the campaign, characters can heal one hit point for every turn of rest after combat up to a maximum of one point for every die of damage suffered. So, for example, a character fortunate enough to have survived a fire ball spell that inflicted 6d6 damage can expect to recover six hit points after resting and tending his wounds for an hour.

Clearly hit points are a useful abstract combat mechanism for swords & sorcery adventure games, as well as being a source of controversy that defies singular definition. As Gygax notes in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide it is ludicrous to suppose that characters can regularly survive multiple sword blows, but the binary "alive or dead" model that hit points seem to support seems equally unsatisfactory, and is a level of abstraction often gainsaid elsewhere in the text. Whilst it may be undesirable in a game of "heroic fantasy" for persistent or debilitating injuries to feature overmuch, a world without wounds is no more appealing. The key to reconciling this likely lies in realising that, although hit point loss may indicate injury and vice versa, the two are not inexorably related, which is to say a broken arm need not correspond to any form of hit point loss at all, and yet could be healed by restorative magic. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that healing magic in Dungeons & Dragons is bound up with the positive and negative energy planes, as well as the concept of life energy levels. Indeed, hit points are perhaps most usefully defined as "life force", but probably they are best understood as being whatever they need to be in the context of game events.

14 comments:

Timeshadows said...

I started writing a comment, but it turned into a post.

http://thegrandtapestry.blogspot.com/2011/06/kills-and-disruption-points-vanguard.html

Best,

Matthew James Stanham said...

I know that feeling well! Many subjects are just too big for comments to do them justice. By the way, I enjoyed your interview over on Hill Cantons: Urutsk Rising.

UWS guy said...

One of your best posts yet Matthew- I like the idea of 0 hitpoints being an actual wound that puts you out of a fight, is debilitating until healed by magic, but non-lethal and is a similar mechanic to the one used in Dragon-age successfully.

Your list was comprehensive. Perhaps the "natural 20" house rule of a critical hit could emulate your house rule and the 0d&d airborn combat rule by inflicting a minor injury (saving the major injury for 0 hp and vorpal swords/sharpness.

Timeshadows said...

Matthew: Thank you. :)

Matthew James Stanham said...

UWS Guy: Thanks for the kind words. Of course, the idea of hit points being a sort of barrier before actual wounding is also present in War Hammer (very likely what predisposed me towards that passage in the DMG). I was not aware that it was also part of the Dragon Age system, but I have hear relatively good reports as to that.

The "natural 20" critical hit is definitely something I have explored in the past and enjoyed using, but these days I would probably roll it in with "combat actions" so that players specifically choose to try and bypass hit points to inflict a wound. Not least of the advantages of handling it that way is that it does not run the risk of interfering with any "mass combat" rules that might be devised! :)

Timeshadows: Always a pleasure!

sepulchre said...

'At an indeterminate but early juncture hits as kills were deemed insufficiently granular for swords & sorcery adventure gaming... a successful hit inflicting 1-6 damage rather than slaying outright.. (and)combatants with multiple hit dice might be laid low with a single blow'.

Great clarification of the shift from Chainmail to OD&D and the contrast between the definitive results of a wargame, hits as kills, and the necessary ambiguity of hits as 'damage'in a FRPG!

Going further, in accepting the last handful of hit points or even 0 hit points as the point at which physical damage really occurs I have had to rethink healing a bit. My solution has been to conceive of hit points of damage as being 'non-lethal' until reaching 0hp. That is as you know, only a quarter of the damage is lethal, while the other 3/4 may be healed according to Non Lethal Combat in the DMG. There are two exceptions: damage from poison (probably deferring to some of the thoughts in a recent OD&D thread at K&K)and privation (healing rates noted in WG4.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Initially that was my solution as well, but I have since realised that an abstract concept is better served with an abstract solution. So, if a character seeks healing then he was wounded, and if he does not then he was not. :D

sepulchre said...

Logically this seems to follow, but I wonder if you might elaborate...seems to me that non-lethal damage is as arbitrary as lethal damage if the one or zero hit points is trully the lethal range. Does not the qualification of the 'last handful of hit points' alter the abstract nature of hit points?

Matthew James Stanham said...

The difference between lethal and non-lethal hit point loss is that only a quarter of the damage is actual, so I infer that the last handful of hit points are not lost under that paradigm. As I say, even the idea that the last handful of hit points represent actual physical damage undermines the abstraction by anchoring their meaning and contrasting that with earlier hit point loss.

Whilst a desire to rationalise hit points is normal, any fixed meaning will do violence to the abstraction, which is why I prefer to disassociate "wounds" and "hit points". Whilst the latter might be indicative of the former, it seems to me that it is not only possible to lose hit points without being wounded, but also to be wounded without losing hit points. The only certainty is that a character with no hit points is "out of combat" (dead, wounded, or unconscious).

sepulchre said...

'The methods by which hit points are commonly restored, such as healing magic, regeneration, or lengthy periods of rest, suggest that their loss is representative of wounds suffered, rather than luck, skill, endurance or divine protection'.

Matt, I don't think this follows. Hit points as you note are tied up with positive and negative energy planes. Like level draining I imagine the loss of that energy is more so metaphysical until one reaches the last handful of hit points. The cause and effect relationship (less Francis Bacon more Aristotle) is there, it is just less material, hence the description of hit points being bound with concepts like luck, skill endurance and divine protections.

'The difference between lethal and non-lethal hit point loss is that only a quarter of the damage is actual, so I infer that the last handful of hit points are not lost under that paradigm'.

Indeed, my explanation was rather shabby. The ruling is applied to any damage at the conclusion of the melee that did not reduce one to zero hit points. Thus a quarter of the damage is actual while the rest may be regained in the following turns of rest. However, if one was reduced to zero hit points or less the damage is considered entirely lethal. As I noted poison is an exception.

'...even the idea that the last handful of hit points represent actual physical damage undermines the abstraction by anchoring their meaning and contrasting that with earlier hit point loss'.

The abstraction is not so homogenous, as zero and negative hit points alter the apparent ambiguity. One is suffering from blood loss, shock etc, and if in the negative range is possibly maimed. This is very specific and not abstract in the terms that hit points have been framed up until then.

'it seems to me that it is not only possible to lose hit points without being wounded, but also to be wounded without losing hit points'.

Agreed. I would concede your take on the recovery of 1hp/turn/hd of damage is another interesting and acceptable way of navigating the abstraction. As both our campaigns are tending towards low- magic I imagine we are saying something rather similar here.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Whilst I agree that hit points are more about negative and positive energy, the point in the above is that methods of recovery do not suggest that to be the case. Indeed, this is a result of hit points originally being physical wounds, and only later rationalised as being more abstract.

I am not sure that hit point reduction to zero in the case of non-lethal damage results in death. As far as I recall it renders the individual only unconscious. That said, it would be no great surprise for such a mixed result to be the case.

Before we ruled on hit point recovery by rest, we were using "healing packs" that restored 1d3 hit points per 10 GP pack. The solution we now use came from a desire to make things simpler, but you are also correct that one underlying reason is a tendency towards "low magic" games.

Brendan said...

A house rule used in the World of Silver Blade is that characters brought to zero hit points or below are wounded and out of the fight, suffering ongoing penalties until the injury is healed, regardless of hit point recovery.

I'm curious, what are your rules for dying? How do you determine what specific wounds are inflicted? Do you have something like the Arduin critical hits table that you would roll on when PCs hit 0 HP? Also, did you apply this system to NPCs as well?

Matthew James Stanham said...

Sorry not to respond sooner, Brendan, busy times and all that!

Good question, I was a bit vague about what we do, it seems. The general understanding is that death certainly occurs at negative ten, and anything less severe than that is wounded (the penalty being equal to the negative, so from minus one to minus nine to all subsequent activities once healed). Natural healing equal to ten days per negative point is required, though can be offset with healing magic (a character with a negative penalty of one can be healed with cure light wounds, but it would have no effect on a character with minus two). Hit points are never actually negative, it is just an expression of the severity of the wound inflicted.

Brendan said...

Thanks for the clarification. It's been interesting to revisit all these different methods for handling HP and dying recently.