The Gaping Wound, Part 1

Posted: 30 July 2012 in Game Structure
Tags: ,

In my current estimation, Hit Points are the greatest single failing for Dungeons and Dragons.

That’s maybe a strong statement to start this off with. Hit points serve a vital (heh) role in Dungeons and Dragons, or really any system that has violent conflict as a key component and chooses to use them.  When our characters take damage in-game, they feel pain.  Presumably they also suffer wounds, and generally can tell when The Reaper looms near.  As players, we don’t have that same visceral connection, and Hit Points are one way to address the disconnect.  It answers the question, “how close am I to death?”

I think there are a number of complaints that can be levied against any system that tries to answer that question.  How aware are we of our own vitality? How much information should a player have about the wounds they’ve suffered?  What’s too much information, and what’s too little? I don’t think Hit Points are a perfect solution, or necessarily the right solution for everyone, but I do think they can be a “good enough” solution, and I think that character’s vitality is an important enough component that erring on the side of “too much information” is excusable.

Not all hit point systems are treated equally.  World of Darkness uses a Hit Point system where characters generally have between 6 and 10 Hit Points, where a single attack can do massive amounts of damage (one good shot is likely to kill mortal characters), and the effects and recovery vary based on the type of damage inflicted.  Palladium has a kind of “hybrid” hit point system, with vital HP wrapped in a sheath of “SDC” points that emulate toughness.  SDC represents superficial harm and heals quickly, HP represents serious wounds and heals slowly.  WoD hit points are essentially static, and there are penalties levied to actions if the character has suffered severe injury; systems like Palladium and D&D increase hit points through leveling, and don’t levy penalties for taking damage.

The Complaints

Most recently the topic of hit points in D&D came up with Dr. Gentleman, who has a post on the topic at his blog.  In his post, I believe he makes four claims:

  1. Hit Point systems lead to Nickle & Dime combat — hit him more than he hits you.
  2. This is unrealistic — real injury comes from properly applied force, not repeated lesser trauma, and an attack that fails to kill a character outright won’t kill him with repeated application.
  3. Strike placement is generally not considered in these systems — at best, a called-shot gives a bonus to damage.
  4. Hit Point systems are too abstract — what does “5 damage” mean? Especially if a character’s hit points increase?

My intent here isn’t to spar with Dr. Gentleman; I think he makes some valid points.  I’m using his article merely as a convenient framework to organize my thoughts.  In general, though, I think his points either confuse design of the system with implementation of the system (some DMs apply or describe the system poorly) or miss the point of the system (to give a player feedback that mirror’s his character’s experience) or actually criticize some other (possibly related) mechanics (such as damage or healing).  The major point, though, and the one that encapsulates where I feel D&D fails is Point 4 — what is the relationship between damage, healing, hit points, and my character?

Minor Points

For Point 1, I think it’s important to recognize what’s going on in the system.  Hit Points measure how close the character is to death.  If your goal is to kill your opponent, then reducing their Hit Points to 0 before he does the same to you is the goal; at the most basic level this is going to be “hit him more than he hits you,” but that’s something of a straw-man — the same can be said of actual combat.  The actual complaint is that Hit Points don’t model any kind of alternate goal, but you might as well say that a barometer can’t tell you how hot it is outside.  Point 1 is looking for a different tool, perhaps a system for tracking injuries, and Hit points neither precludes nor is diminished by the use of such an additional system.  (There are a number of such systems out there, and I hope to address some in a future post, since it can be a useful tool in the right situations.)

Point 2 strikes me as simply false.  That is, yes, properly applied force does cause real injury, but so can repeated lesser trauma.  Punching a man in the face will hurt but rarely kill him outright; a sustained beating is likely to lead to severe injury and death, and while that’s occasionally due to a single critical strike, it can also be because our bodies aren’t designed to sustain repeated trauma.  Bones break, vessels burst, all sorts of things result from otherwise-minor trauma applied successively.  That being said, this point begins to hint at a larger issue, one I believe is about assumptions and expectations. How many paper-cuts does it take to kill someone?  The answer depends on how much hit point damage a paper cut deals, and I propose this: the hit point system as designed for D&D is not granular enough to account for minor damage, whether it’s paper cuts, mild bruising, or even (potentially) “merely a flesh wound.”

Point 3 is actually a complaint about how damage is handled, and the fact that the placement and severity of an attack is abstracted away in the roll to hit and the damage roll.  A properly places strike is represented by a high damage roll; a lesser strike is a lower roll (and thus less injury).  This is very similar to Point 1 (all HP measures is how close you are to death, not alternate goals) and Point 2 (D&D Hit Points, and combat rules in general, aren’t granular enough to model this level of detail).  The trick of a called shot dealing bonus damage is a common patch for targeting vulnerable areas, though I think it’s a weak (if often “good enough”) tool for the job.  The Rogue’s sneak attack/backstab feature essentially models the same thing, allowing the rogue to score extra damage when they have an opening because they can strike a vulnerable spot.  This is a complaint against the structures around hit points, rather than hit points themselves.

Point 4 I think is a real issue, and because of that it’ll need to be addressed at greater length in it’s own post (or posts, depending on how this discussion goes).

Part 2

  1. Respecting that you don’t intend to spar, I’m commenting in the spirit of attempting to learn something new. I think you and I come from a very different set of assumptions, as illustrated in stating that “at the most basic level this is going to be ‘hit him more than he hits you,’ but that’s something of a straw-man — the same can be said of actual combat.” Researching methods of combat and the effects of the physical trauma that results has been a hobby of mine, and I’ve yet to come across that opinion from someone educated or experienced in the field. How did you come to this conclusion?

    • Jack says:

      “How did you come to this conclusion?”

      Admittedly, through ignorance and Hollywood, but I feel like as long as you aren’t trying to recreate historically-accurate dueling this falls under the “good enough” qualification.

      Take boxing. If you abstract away the details of what happens biologically from a body-blow versus a shot to the head, it’s essentially “hit him more than he hits you.” That’s going to be unsatisfactory if you’re trying to reenact a prize fight from the ’40s, but it’s good enough to determine who wins in a bar fight.

      I think this is what D&D is trying to do — and I believe that because it has it’s roots in tabletop war gaming. In war gaming, figures have “hit points” to abstract away the kind of attrition a unit sees in combat, and eventually the unit is scattered or decimated. D&D builds “down” from that to five an individual character a similar sort of abstraction. Which is the basis for my conclusion that, in the end, D&D Hit Points are just not as granular as people (myself included, initially) are inclined to believe it is.

      I think I got away from the point of your question, though: no, I’m not an expert of any sort. :p

      • The thrust of my post was that cumulative damage systems are more unrealistic than non-cumulative ones, so our goals are immediately at odds. I don’t have a problem with this, but your post gives the impression that verisimilitude is your goal, and that you believe hit points achieve that.

        • Jack says:

          Yeah; I guess to be clear, I agree that non-cumulative systems offer an aspect of verisimilitude that hp systems don’t, however I don’t believe that they are superior (merely different). I think hp systems *can* offer a level of realism – they wouldn’t be useful to me if they didn’t – and my goal is to examine the D&D system to see if it does/can. My hypothesis is “yes, but in a different way than most people expect.”

          This isn’t unlike my posts on classes or levels, where I believe the system makes more sense if we reassess our assumptions.

          • Jack says:

            Building on that, I theorize that the *best* system combines cumulative and non-cumulative systems, but they can be used separately for some level of satisfaction. And simpler systems tend to be more practical at the table.

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