The brilliance of unrealistic hit points

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

After the role-playing game hobby’s first 10 years, designers turned from strict realism and began to design rules that both supported a game’s flavor and encouraged its core activities. Runequest‘s realistically lethal combat systemParanoia 1st edition game fit the fearful world of Call of Cthulhu (1981), as did a new sanity system. Paranoia (1984) built in rules that encouraged a core activity of treachery, while giving each character enough clones to avoid hard feelings.

Today, this innovation carries through stronger then ever. Dungeons and Dragons’ fourth-edition designers saw D&D’s fun in dynamic battles and showing off your character’s flashy capabilities, so they optimized rules that heightened that aspect of the game, possibly to the expense of other aspects.

When Dave Arneson mashed rules for ironclads into Chainmail, he probably gave little thought to supporting the D&D play style that would launch a hobby, but he created some brilliant conventions.

Chainmail gameThe best idea was to give characters steadily increasing hit point totals that “reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage─as indicated by constitution bonuses─and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the ‘sixth sense’ which warns the individual of otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.” (Gary wrote this rationale for hit points in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.)

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D used hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, rising hit points work as an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic─it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep─but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Critics of inflated hit points still had a point. Using hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic can strain credulity, especially when you cannot explain how a character could reasonably reduce the damage he takes. Why should an unconscious or falling hero be so much more durable than a first-level mook?  Why does cure light wounds completely heal the shopkeeper and barely help a legendary hero? Over the years, we’ve seen attempts to patch these problems. For example, I liked how fourth edition’s healing surge value made healing proportional to hit points, so I’m sorry to see D&D Next turn back to the traditional hierarchy of cure spells.

D&D maintains a deliberate vagueness about the injuries inflicted by a hit. This abstraction makes possible D&D’s brilliant use of hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic. Fourth edition exploits the ambiguity more than ever, making plausible the second wind and the healing power of a warlord’s inspiration. 4E explicitly makes hit points as much a measure of resolve as of skill, luck and physical endurance. Damage apparently exists as enough of an abstraction that even if a hit deals damage, it doesn’t necessarily draw blood.

Even as 4E aims for the loosest possible interpretation of a hit, it makes the hit roll more important than in any prior edition. In 4E, melee hits can inflict crippling effects without saves. Just getting hit automatically subjects you to poison, or paralysis, or whatever. In past editions, if the spider bit or the ghoul clawed, you took the damage, but you still got an immediate save.

In the early days of the RPG hobby, many games attempted to fuse D&D’s fantastic setting with a more realistic model of combat damage. Although a few of these games enjoyed success, none recreated the combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing play style pioneered by D&D. At the time, no one seemed to realize that the clever damage-reduction mechanism built into game enabled the game’s play style.

Video game designers figured it out. Virtually every video game that combines fighting with character improvement features D&D-style rising hit points.

Next: Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

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5 Responses to The brilliance of unrealistic hit points

  1. Jarrett says:

    Very clearly put. If there were a consistent, conscious approach it seems like armor should increase hit points vs making a target harder to hit.

  2. cokn says:

    “Every “realistic” system to follow D&D used hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. ”

    Not on leading edge games, you do a roll after X seconds, needing a number smaller than Y to survive. With X and Y depending on the amount of damage you received. Anyway after calculating all damages, your health stat would influence it reducing or increasing Y and X

  3. Robert says:

    I understand how hit points (and armor class) is a convenience to streamline combat. But as you pointed out it also raises more problems, which then have to be fixed. The “in-game” rationale for hit points (along with armor class) offered by Gygax never did work for me & breaks the game immersion. It just seems like you have to go through a lot of mental contortions and hand-waving to make it work.

    Other games like Advanced Fighting Fantasy have rules that may slow down combat a tad more but make much better sense. In AFF, players don’t keep accumulating hit points as they level up, rather they gain points in combat skill which makes them harder to hit. In D&D your character gets better at hitting stuff as he levels up, but doesn’t get better at parrying and avoiding blows. Combat in AFF is resolved as an opposed combat skill check and armor reduces damage from hits. It all makes sense.

  4. Pingback: For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells | DMDavid

  5. “Most attacks can hit and inflict damage”
    Low level characters miss constantly in fights that last several minutes, which is retarded. Also fighting skill makes you no harder to hit and damage, which is retarded.

    “providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight.”
    Why should everyone contribute to the fight? People have different specialities. If everyone is just doing the same video game ‘damage’ instead of capitlizing on their specialities this makes them interchangeable palette swaps.

    “Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim.”
    You have obviously never heard of body armor. True, most people don’t get hit a lot in their skivvies, but most people don’t fight naked, either. Plate armor is virtually impervious to direct hits, and its hard surface and mass mean it channels even powerful blows into mostly harmless dings.

    “In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks.”
    Which is actually how most fights with skilled warriors work. Have you ever seen fencers?

    “The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic─it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep─but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.”
    I find choosing fights, tactics, and opportunistically exploiting a weakness or mistake is a lot more fun than rolling a d20 for a fucking hour until some jackass finally dies after the 95th sword blow.

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