Posts Tagged ‘hit points’

The Gaping Wound, Part 4

Posted: 19 September 2012 in Game Structure
Tags: ,
Death and Dying

We’ve established that the average person in D&D has 3 hit points. They can take 3 points of damage before they collapse from their wounds, and they can supper a total of 13 damage (10 more than their HP) before their body gives up and they are dead.  Up to -9 HP it is possible for them to stabilize and recover naturally. 

According to the SRD, a character who is dying (fewer than 0hp) has a 10% chance per turn to naturally stabilize, or else they lose another hp.  At this rate (and understanding a D&D Turn to be 10 minutes), most people will be dead within an hour and a half.  Even if they stabilize naturally, unless they have someone to aid them they will lose hp every hour until he becomes conscious (again, 10% chance per hour), and even then he will not begin healing naturally for some time (10% chance per day, or lose hp). If there’s someone around to help, the character stops losing hp and start healing naturally as soon as they stabilize — pro tip: always travel with a group.

Having established that hit points are real measures of actual injury, this becomes a model for the body’s ability to repair itself; it is litterally a measure of how close your character is to death, whether he’s being pummelled or just bleeding out.

Natural Healing

Natural healing in D&D 3.X is 1hp per day, per level — or 2hp per day per level if you get complete bed rest.  Generally, any fight you can walk away from you can recover from in a day or two; this is partly because a hp is roughly 1/13th of a character’s vitality, and because an injury does not need to be completely-healed to be mechanically-irrelevant.  Bruises, scratches, and the like are too small for the coarse-grained HP system to track, and day-old wounds appear to fall in the same category.

I have to admit that I’m surprised to read that an Nth-level character heals N times faster than other people; given three characters stabilized at -9hp, the 1st level character is on his feet in a week (6 days at 2hp/day), the 2nd level character is on his feet in a few days (3 days at 4hp/day), and the 3rd level character is on his feet in only a couple days (2 days at 6hp/day).  One way to explain it would be to say that a higher level character recovers quicker even if he doesn’t actually heal quicker, but that undermine’s my intent of “1hp means 1hp, a wound is a wound,” and I’d probably scrap the idea in my own games — characters heal 1hp per day regardless of level. (As an aside, actually healing quicker makes sense for a evel 5+ character, and below that level it might be easy enough to handwave the difference.)

Magical Healing

A major benefit of “hp is wounds,” in my opinion, is that it makes magical healing more reasonable.  This is more important than the quirks of natural healing because it’s concievable that a higher-level character actually does heal quicker, but more particularly because in most games natural healing doesn’t come up.  With access to Clerics and potions, most groups will take the time to refresh themselves to as close to full health as they can as often as they can.  Asserting that “hp is wounds” normalizes magical healing, so that it affects people the same way regardless of Class or Level.  A 1st Level Wizard and a 5th Level Fighter recieve the same, objective benefit from a potion of Cure Light Wounds, rather than having the Wizard’s sucking chest wound close up while the Fighter’s cuts and bruises just sting slightly less.

This also lets us talk objectively about the Cure spells and what they mean.  Cure Light Wounds does 1d8+1 points of healing, about 5 on average.  “Light” in this case is something of a misnomer, as 5hp is enough for most people to be dying.  Cure Moderate Wounds does 2d8+3, or 12 on average.  “Moderate” wounds are enough that most people would be on death’s door.  Cure Serious Wounds does 3d8+5, 18 on average; Serious wounds put a trained fighter into his grave.  Finally, Cure Critical Wounds does 4d8+7, or 44 on average.  That’s more than three mortal wounds for regular people.


I think that wraps up the notion of hit points as actual wounds.  By the book there are three factors to consider: how long you can fight (positive hit points), how long you can survive (negative hit points and death threshold), and how quickly you can recover (whether 1hp/day or 1hp/day/level).  Regular people can sustain 12 and 14 damage, with trained soldiers weathering as much as 17.  Higher level characters can fight longer and survive more serious wounds, and may recover from their injuries quicker.  A few points of damage are enough to put someone out of the fight (it’s a coarse-grained system), and 10-13 points of damage can be considered a mortal wound.  Scratches, superficial cuts and bruises, scars, and the like are too small to be tracked by hp, and the actual details of any given wound/attack are abstracted into the damage roll.  If you know what the wound is (ie, slitting someone’s throat), the hp system probably isn’t appropriate.

Part 3


When my last post ended, we had established that there was a baseline in D&D that 14 to 20 points of damage is enough to kill a man, with 4 to 8 generally being enough to ‘drop’ him and cause him to start dying.  This is based off of die type and Constitution score and (importantly) assumes a Level 1 character.  That most people are Level 1 is one of my guiding principles, and I believe it will serve us well here.

Let’s take our notional baseline and put a finer point on it: the statistically average Level 1 Commoner (human, for what it’s worth).  His hit die type is a d6 and he has a 10 CON, so his (statistically average) hit points are 3 (rounding down) — he will begin dying after just a few points of damage and will be dead after a maximum of 13 damage.  A Warrior will, on average, have 5 hp and die after a total of 15 damage, making them a bit more resilient but still in the same ball park.  PC classes are comparable.  Extra points in CON effectively add 1.5 points to the total damage a character can take before death, so a tough Warrior might be able to survive up to 18 points of damage, but he’s still down after 6.

So far we can make sense of this.  Hit points represent the body’s ability to sustain damage.  After so much punishment, you will begin dying and, eventually, you body will beyond the point where it can recover; you are dead.  If you’ve been hurt and survived, rest and medical attention can, over time, return you to health.  Hit Points only measure the proximity to death; they do not track scars, broken bones, pulled tendons, torn muscles, etc. except in as far as those things bring a character closer to death.  Hit Points on their own can not tell you if you lose a limb, or an eye, or threw out your back.  Hit Points (on their own) can’t track bruises, fatigue, hunger, or exposure to the elements.  they just tell you how close you are to dying in a coarse-grained kind of way.  But for that, they do a pretty good job: some people are tougher than others, but everyone is effectively within a few points of each other (with the exception of extreme Constitution), and everyone heals at the same rate.

The real problem comes from scaling hit points with level and, perhaps to a greater extent, random hit points.

Scaling Hit Points

The way D&D does hit points is that you get X hit dice of type Y, where X is the level of your character.  So a Level 1 Commoner (on average) has 3hp, but once he hits level 2 he jumps up to 7 hp!  It’s worth noting here, though, that this isn’t really twice the vitality; he has 7hp, but he’s still dead at -10, so instead of dying after 13 damage he’s dead after 17.  It’s not a huge leap in those terms, but it does mean that he can take a lot more punishment before he ‘drops.’  What’s more, the average Level 2 Commoner can take more punishment than the average Level 1 Warrior, both before he drops and before he’s dead.  That is to say Level matters, which I think is appropriate.  The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 in many respects is more important than the difference between Warrior and Commoner; the Level 2 character is better than the Level 1 character fundamentally (though a Level 2 Commoner who says that to a Level 1 Warrior is unlikely to ever see Level 3).

Does this mean that the Level 2 character has more meat to them?  That their bones are stronger, that they’re more resistant to decapitation?  The answer is no: hit points don’t track those sorts of things, and if they’re important hit points are the wrong tool to use.  All it means is that the Level 2 character can keep fighting despite more severe punishment and that he can recover from graver wounds.  After 13 damage the Level 1 Commoner’s body can’t keep up and shuffles off this mortal coil; the Level 2 Commoner has taken the same punishment but is still holding on, and may yet recover.  The Level 2 character is more resilient.

At Level 3 the Commoner would have 10 hp and survive up to 20 damage before dying, and it starts to become clear that such a character can keep fighting despite having taken wounds that would drop a lesser man.  In fact, when the Level 3 Commoner has taken enough damage to drop, the Level 1 Commoner is on death’s door and fading fast.  The Level 3 character is truly heroic, though still within ‘normal’ bounds.  By the time he reach Level 5, though, he has 17 hit points and can sustain 27 points of damage before his last gasp; he fights on after receiving a wound that would kill other men outright.  He is on the verge of the superhuman.

Random Hit Points

But what if he’s not? This assumes that a character could increase in level without significantly increasing their resilience, but I don’t think that’s much of an assumption at all.  First, it’s easy to imagine a Wizard who becomes a better Wizard without becoming noticeably tougher.  Second, it’s already coded into the way we do hit points: statistically unlikely though it may be, that Level 5 Commoner could have only 7 hp (if he rolled ones for every Level after the first). And in terms of the purpose of the Hit Point system I think this flaw may be the worst because it does damage to the purpose of hit points: it divorces them from the character they’re meant to represent.

I think I get why we do it.  Dice are a thing that gamers love, they’re fair, and they help us determine otherwise uncertain things.  But my contention is that hit points are, in one sense, not uncertain.  The character either is or is not getting more resilient, and either by a lot or a little.  In a way, it’s as important as whether he’s a Wizard or a Warrior, a Gnome or a Half-Orc, Lawful or Chaotic.  It talks about his ability to act beyond his old limits; it is deliberate.  Determining this randomly causes problems because now anyone can suddenly be twice as resilient without a firm connection to the fiction; it’s random.

There’s not really a good ‘fix’ for this, and in many cases I’m not sure a fix is desired, but I think it’s important to recognize. If you don’t acknowledge that your character’s hit point increase is tied to the fiction then the mechanic is going to become divorced from the character’s reality.

Part 2
Part 4

It’s been about a month since I first opened the topic of hit points in D&D.  Although I still haven’t had the time to get in to the meat of it, I did want to look at a little bit of history of hit points.   That being said, I didn’t enter the hobby until the late ’90s, so none of my history lessons come first-hand.

In Chainmail, as near as I can tell, there was no notion of hit points; a unit was hit or not and, once hit the unit was dead.  There was apparently a set of rules made to model Civil War era ironclads (as noted by Roles, Rules, and Rolls), where the structure of a ship could take so much damage before being sunk.  According to the interview RR&R references, those rules were incorporated into D&D in order to ease the harshness of sudden, random death that Chainmail would have otherwise. This let D&D players act and feel like heroes.

Anecdotal evidence (the first comment, not the linked post) suggests that hit points for humans were originally set at 7, but player complaints lead to an increase.  Though, it seems like OD&D had starting hit points ranging from 1 to 7 (d6+CON), and 0 hit points was dead.  Then in AD&D, various hit dice were introduced based on class, with a range of 1 to 9 (depending on class and CON) for first level characters.  Again, evidence suggests these numbers were historically meant to represent regular people; the average joe.

So originally (for some value of “originally”) something around 4 points of damage were enough to kill a man (on average), but a burly fighter might be able to withstand twice that.  This is a rather coarse-grained system in that it can really only measure one quarter of a man’s vitality — anything less is too small to be measured.  This was alleviated a little bit with the addition of “below zero” rules, where a character was incapacitated (and dying) at 0hp, but they weren’t dead until -10 — it effectively takes 14 points of damage to kill the average man and 19 to kill a burly fighter, which is a much closer ratio than 4:9.  This addition makes the system a bit more granular and levels the playing field a bit (fighters are no longer taking two mortal wounds before they die). With 15 to 20 points of granularity (though, less than half of those count as “action-ready”), there’s a lot more room to address ‘lesser’ wounds, but we’re still talking about the sorts of things that are going to leave a mark and require a bit of time to recover from.  A busted lip is probably not hit point damage.

Hopefully it won’t take me another month to address ‘modern’ notions of hit points (I don’t think current systems stray too far from the historic baseline, at least not at first) and the contention that hit points are incoherent, that they are explained as “luck, divine favor, etc” but treated as actual physical wounds.

Part 1
Part 3

I’ve got a few different irons in the fire right now, maybe a half-dozen half-started posts.  Real Life — the stuff I do between thinking about and playing RPGs — has been more intense than usual lately, and that’s put a real drain on my energy.  So we end up with half-posts like this.

Some things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Initiative, and the flow of combat in general, is kind of wonky in most games.  I want a system that rewards a character for a high Initiative bonus as well as rewarding characters for a high Initiative score.  Some games do one or the other, but I’m not sure anyone does both. (Dr. Gentleman has a series of posts about combat that may cover some similar ground, or not; I haven’t read them yet.)
  • I want to get back to thinking about Hit Points in D&D 3.X; my first post was really just a preliminary introduction, and I haven’t gotten around to the real meat of hit points.
  • I don’t like the way Magic is split in D&D, or the way Class Spell Lists are broken up; but I haven’t thought hard enough about it yet to be sure that changing it won’t make ever caster just a Wizard with a funny(er) hat.
  • I’m intrigued by what I’m hearing about running RPGs through Google+ — my first gaming group (my brothers) is spread out over several states now, and the potential for running a game with them again is very attractive.  I may finally get a chance to play RIFTS.
  • More and more (and more) I get the feeling that system doesn’t matter, because the core of role-playing is making choices, and mechanics are just ways to arbitrate consequences.  A system is necessary, but does it really matter what system?  It seems lots of people answer that with an emphatic “yes!” and I need to do more research on that. Minutes after writing this I already feel the lie in it; I have to confess that system does matter, but I haven’t unpacked that concept enough to say how, when, or why it matters — that’s what I want to do research to understand.

Once life lets up on me a bit, I plan to address some or all of those thoughts.

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