Health & Hitpoints
Let’s start by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: hitpoints are the worst possible system for tracking health except all others that have been tried.
Hitpoints are terrible for verisimilitude and an awful reflection of reality. They’re also not particularly good at emulating cinematic combat.
This old argument has come up again and again (and again and again), most recently resurfacing on various message boards due to the continued warlord debates and the option of martial healing. This seems like a topical discussion to write about.
Are Hitpoints Fatigue or Health?
And no. Here’s an amusing flowchart on the topic.
Jumping right into the debate, are hitpoints a measure of energy, fatigue, luck, and skill? No. No amount of skill can stop a fire from burning you, or acid dissolving you, or diminish a fall from breaking bones. When your hitpioints drop low enough a PC does not faint like a Pokemon, but passes out from their injuries and is in very real danger of death. Likewise, skill at turning blows into scrapes and lesser wounds is of no use against surprise attacks, coup de graces, and the like.
Hitpoints are also tied to Constitution, the representation of physical health. If hitpoints were meant to represent deflecting blows, Dexterity should also be a viable stat to use for hitpoints. Wisdom, representing willpower, would also be a viable stat representing the ability to keep fighting despite weariness.
Additionally, many of the justifications for hitpoints not being health overlap with other mechanics. Skill at deflecting blows turning them into near misses or reducing damage is handled by parry mechanics. Glancing blows that inflict no damage is handled by Armour Class (which itself is an oddity given people in heavy armour are easier to hit given they cannot move). Similarly, powers or bonuses that grant a bonus to deflecting attacks typically give a bonus to AC not to hp.
Many monster attacks rely on physical contact. Attacks that “hamstring” or cause any poisoned imply physical contact of some kind. No amount of skill will reduce being chewed and swallowed by a purple worm. Similarly, attacks that target vulnerabilities must make contact. You don’t injure a werewolf by almost hitting it with a silver weapon. A trolls regeneration is less impressive without actual injury.
There’s also the language of the game. Healing spells are not cure light fatigue or moderate scratches (plus they’re referred to as “healing”). Hitpoint loss is referred to as “damage” or “injuries”. Alternate means of recovery are called fast healing or regeneration. Being reduced below half hp in 4th Edition is called “bloodied” not “winded”.
But then are hitpoints a measure of physical health? Also no.
Hitpoints increase with skill and experience (i.e. level). A solid sword blow will kill anyone regardless of skill, although a person might survive a couple lesser stabs. In most editions, a longsword wielded by a strong individual can do as much as 12 damage, lethal to a rookie adventurer (usually) but ignorable to an experienced adventurer. Even a wizard can shrug off a full sword blow with enough levels. The sword blow does not do less damage, is not any less leather, and the wielder no less strong, and yet the effect is lessened.
While an experienced adventurer might be more fit than a rookie adventurer, fitness and physical hardiness is fairly independent of skill. An adventurer that spends their days eating rations and sleeping on stone floors for weeks in a dank underground dungeon should be less healthy than a farmer eating three square meals a day in the sun and fresh air.
Hitpoints are also reduced by things that do not cause actual injuries. Fatigue, poison, starvation, and the like do not cause actual physical injuries but reduce a character’s hitpoints as surely as a sword blow.
Adventurers also manage to continue fighting at full proficiency regardless if their hitpoints are full, halfway, around 10%, or a single hitpoint. When someone is beaten half to death, their skill, speed, accuracy, and strength decrease. Even accounting for adrenaline and the short duration of fights in D&D, there should be some minor dip in performance. But there isn’t.
And in the most recent two editions the rate of hitpoint recovery is keyed to level, so you heal faster based on your level of skill. But one’s amount of experience is unrelated to how fast someone recovers from injury.
Hitpoints add a pretty large buffer between alive and dead. There’s no way to knock out a guard or sentry without stabbing them repeatedly. The cinematic single blow to the back of the head is unknown in D&D.
Similarly, capturing a party generally difficult without overwhelming odds. Even grabbing a PC and holding a knife to their throat does not work as PCs generally have a sizable hp buffer.
Because hitpoints continually increase, the game has a damage creep where monsters have to deal ever increasingly amounts of damage to be dangerous, which renders low level monsters unthreatening. And because hitpoints increase at different rates for different classes, the damage needed to bloody a warrior class will all but kill a glass cannon like the rogue and splatter a wizard.
There’s also a need for player damage to continually creep upward, otherwise fights become increasingly long slogs as the party pounds away at a monster’s seemingly endless pool of hitpoints.
Because hitpoints rise and fall it’s a continual source of math in the game. Hitpoints have a high degree of tracking and fiddliness. They’re also seldom dramatic; PCs tend to die at the most inopportune and least dramatic times.
For review purposes, I’ll quickly copy how various editions have defined hitpoints in the past.
Your character’s hitpoint score represents his ability to survive injury. The higher his hitpoint score, the more damage he can sustain before dying. Characters who survive long enough to gain a good deal of experience typically gain more and more hit points; therefore, an experienced character lasts longer in a fight or other dangerous situations than does an inexperienced character.
These hitpoints represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed. A certain of these hitpoints represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained. The remainder, a significant portion of hitpoints at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and/or magical factors.
Sometimes, no degree of luck, skill, ability, or resistance to various attacks can prevent harm from coming to a character. The adventuring life carries with it unavoidable risks. Sooner or later a character is going to be hurt.
To allow characters to be heroic (and for ease of play), damage is handled abstractly in the AD&D game. All characters and monsters have a number of hit points. The more hit points a creature has, the harder it is to defeat.
Injury and Death: Your hit points measure how hard you are to kill. No matter how many hit points you lose, your character isn’t hindered in any way until your hit points drop to 0 or lower.
Loss Of Hit Points: The most common way that your character gets hurt is to take lethal damage and lose hit points.
What Hit Points Represent: Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one.
Over the course of a battle, you take damage from attacks. Hitpoints measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hitpoints represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s skill, luck, and resolve – all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation.
Hitpoints and healing have changed between editions.
In 1st and 2nd Edition healing was capped at 1hp per day so non-magical recovery was much slower. And at higher levels hitpoints increased much more slowly with PCs no longer gaining new Hit Dice.
Healing and hitpoints increased in 3rd Edition where a high Constitution granted slightly more hitpoints per level and Hit Dice continued to be added until level 20.
The biggest change was 4th Edition, which more than doubled starting hitpoints but added non-magical healing to the game via the second wind mechanic, use of healing surges during short rests, and the warlord. Characters also heal completely overnight regardless of the percentage of hitpoints lost.
While in earlier editions, abstraction became more pronounced at higher levels when a once fatal blow becomes ignorable, 4e started with some measure of abstraction. Even a critical hit was unlikely drop drop a 1st level character. And based on the choice of healer by the party, hitpoints might entirely be fatigue and energy and not health.
5th Edition returns to lower hitpoints but retains the faster healing of 4th Edition while also loosely defining hitpoints as half health and half fatigue. And it’s uncertain if non-magical healing will be included.
I’ll end this section with a minor cartoon I did in response to hitpoint debates at ENWorld:
Good For Nothing?
With all the debates, why continue to use hitpoints? What are the benefits of hitpoints over other systems?
The primary benefit is the increased survivability of characters. The longer a PC adventuress the hardier they are, to avoid having to start at 1st level again. There’s something unsatisfying about characters being as fragile at tenth level as at first level. Hitpoints also generally prevent a single lucky strike from ending the career of a character.
Hitpoints are also easy to understand. It’s one big pool of numbers. The singular health bar. The lower it gets the more in danger you are of dying. It’s simple to understand and has been adapted widely in most games where you take the role of a singular protagonist. Video games continue to use the health bar, often paired with the even more implausible healing of endless first aid kits.
Hitpoints are also fast. One person rolls, compares it to a static number and if favourable rolls again and then says the result. It’s simple and it’s quick, which is attractive in a game with combat being frequent. There is negligible counter rolling, back-and-forth across the table, or interaction with the result.
Hitpoints aren’t the only method of health tracking found in role-playing games.
One method D&D had tried in the past is separating skill and fatigue from physical health. The most recent attempt at thing was in the 3e product Unearthed Arcana which included vigor and wound points. WP did not increase as levels were gained, as people’s physical health is static. Attempts at this were often problematic because some attacks would target Wound Points, adding the risk of a few lucky hits killing even a high level character. As adventurers are typically involved in many more encounters per day than monsters, WP/VP systems disproportionately punish PCs who can find their Wound Points whittled down over time.
Another option is less health but greater avoidance. So the PC has a more active party in avoiding damage, such as parrying, rolling to dodge. This option works best in fast games where doubling the rolls doesn’t overly slow down combat or variants where the PC roll all the dice.
A similar method is damage soaking, with the PC rolling to resist damage or flat damage reduction. Hitpoints can be lower and increase more gradually, but PCs gain more damage avoidance or ways of reducing damage. But this also increases the amount of rolling and the complexity of basic combat.
There’s also a greater number of outcomes. With basic hitpoints attacks have two results: hit or miss. Once other variables are included this doubles the variables. And adds the possibility of having a PC roll well only to have their awesome moment of glory defeated by an equally good roll from the monster.
The argument over hitpoints reminds the science nerd part of me of the light debates: if light was a particle or a wave. Three centuries of arguing ended up being moot due to wave-particle duality that said both sides were right (and all participants were wrong). The hitpoint debate has a similar needless divisiveness because hitpoints have to represent physical health in some way but they cannot solely represent health. There must be a meat-fatigue duality to hitpoints for them to function.
In this respect, more abstraction is good, as the DM can fudge the percentage depending on what is happening on a round-by-round basis. Using a favourite example, if a PC is hit by a red dragon’s fiery breath and knocked off a cliff where they fall thirty feet into a pool of scalding lava where they float for a few rounds before being dragged out, the PC might only have taking health-based damage. If the PC is instead bull rushed off a shallow slope into a marsh full of toxic swamp gas where they sink into quicksand and almost drown the PC might not have any actual injuries and all hp loss is related to fatigue and exhaustion.
Accepting that hitpoints have to encapsulate both health and skill/luck is pretty reasonable compromise that gives both sides something they want. Which is why it’s never going to work…