Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A critical examination of Hit Points

Oh, Hit points. Is there any other gaming concept as opaque and contentious over the ages? Maybe Armor Class,  but that is for another day.

What are hit points really? With monsters, it is simple enough to equate hit points to physical damage. But less so for people.

Originally, number of Hit dice = the number of hits before you go down. Simple and intuitive option. A normal 1 HD man goes down when struck by a sword. A troll, being of larger and more durable stature than a man, has six hit dice (ie, can take six sword hits before going down).

But then the iffy part: A 6th level fighter fighter is the equal of six men - Is his body as tough as a troll? What does his extra hit points represent?

The exact answer seems to vary over the years and as significantly - There doesn't seem to be a clear consensus in any point in time as to its exact status.

"Wounds + [x], from taking a hit" seems to be the the closest definition people can agree on at any given time. But even that is stretched by the time we get to 4th and 5th edition - The most grognardy of my own group has taken to calling them "hero points" ever since we switched to 5th edition, due to the high and frequent rate of daily healing and proliferation of non-magical instant recoveries ("Second Wind", "Song of Rest") and morale boosts of temporary hit points ("Rally", "Inspiring Leader", "Heroism") suggesting that the "Hit" and "wounding" part of hit points don't mean much until you hit 0.

Gary Gygax, in his usual sesquipedalian style, gave this answer in the 1st edition DMG, page 82:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these 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 some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).
According to this then, Hit points = Physique + [skill, sixth sense, luck & divine protection(!)]. The problem is, EGG didn't really seem to grasp what hit points was supposed to be all that well, for there is no follow through on this definition in any of his rules.

One would presume, from reading the above, that the majority of a high level characters's hit points comes from the "immeasurable areas". But he still heals at a flat rate of 1 (or 1-3, depending on which early edition you use) hit point per day.

That 1st level fighter with 8 hit points who lost all but one of them in a fight is as good as new a week later. The 5th level fighter with 29 hit points who lost all but one of them in a fight needs 4 weeks to be as good as new. Where are the immeasurable parts reflected in the healing process?

EGG may have written flavor text to suggest otherwise, but his take on the actual rules for hit points place them squarely as "wound points". To which I would say to Gary, were he still alive:

Grognards, brace yourselves. I am now going to argue that the designers of the 4th and 5th edition understood the original concept of hit points much better than Gygax did. None of them have fully internalised the implications of hit points though.

Gygax, much like James Wyatt, Mike Mearls et al, was an interpreter of the concept. So let's go to the originator of the idea, Dave Arneson, and look at how he understood the concept of hit points.

Originally, hit points were fixed. The notion of gaining more as you levelled came about because the players at Arneson's table didn't mind that it took multiple hits to kill a troll, but they minded that it only took one hit to kill them. So, he came up with the idea that:

 "As the player progressed, he did not receive additional Hit Points, but rather he became harder to Hit."

He soon enough changed this to hit points growing with level, but it is interesting to note that this was the original conception it grew out of (and also that Arneson tinkered with the 'modern' notion of power level=harder to hit, yet in the end decided to use growing hit points to model this).

Here we see where Gygax derived his inspiration for his flavor text from at least, but phrased in a much sharper and succinct concept - It is really only the first hit die of a player character that represents the physical part of hit points.

It seems however, that, unlike Gygax, Arneson followed through on this idea more (it was his own idea, after all) and treated hit points more fluidly and situationally as a result, in the same way he, and subsequently D&D at large, made AC and saves fluid through various situational modifiers.

In the "Temple of the Frog" as presented in the Blackmoor supplement, Arneson has this encounter:
"The destruction of an egg area will cause all frogs to fight at double value for 2-12 melee rounds after which all will withdraw to the pond and submerge."
Good golly, y'all. Dave Arneson used temporary hit point mechanisms in print way back in 1975.

And this is where we see 4th and 5th edition internalise Arneson's original concept of hit points much better than Gygax did as they treat hit points as a far more fluid mechanic than than static 'wound point' approach of former editions.

A fighter can recuperate hit points in combat with a "second wind", a leader can inspire his allies with temporary hit points. Anyone can, effectively, "heal" themselves up entirely overnight. Hit points in these editions are basically the metaphysical heroic mass of the character. And seen as such, the resource management built around it makes a lot of sense.

Here we see a proper implementation of the fundamental sense of hit points: An abstracted engine, not for determining wounds as such, but for recording attritionally, your heroic capability and resources in combat.

The problem for both 4th and 5th edition is that in embracing this, they have essentially taken the notion of characters ever actually being wounded out of the game. Sure, like Gygax did with the "immeasurable areas" of hit points, they pay token homage to the notion of wounds in their flavor text. But the actual mechanic does not reflect taking any wounds until you hit 0 hit points (and even that is just brief unconsciousness - or death). Prior to death, there are no dramatic implications to being hit other than your daily resource management.

Interestingly, Arneson seems to be the only one of significance who properly internalised how the implications of hit points being a gameable and dramatic abstraction for being harder to hit meant that something more was needed to represent actual wounds. In the original "Men & Magic", we have the seed of it (which I suspect, but have no way of knowing, was Arneson's bit):
“Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.”
This is a statement D&D in general has done very little with. But Arneson's Blackmoor does. It gives us our first hit location system, wherein hits variously give penalties to dexterity, reduced movement or even instant death. I don't want to give Arneson too much credit here - The system is abominably complicated, but the idea of it is sound - Something more than hit points is needed to track actual wounds.


Having played my fair share of games who did away with the 'unrealistic' bag-of-hit-point systems (a move which my younger self applauded back then), the unfortunate reality at the table of these more 'realistic' systems is that they just don't play out with the same intuitive and well-paced dramatic development as hit points. Landing more hits and taking points off your opponents metaphysical "still standing" score is just more fun and dramatic than a series "you hit, but the opponent parries" exchanges until someone actually hits with what is likely a fight ender.

I consider hit points as probably the most innovative and strongest feature in the history of D&D - It's a brilliant combat engine that strikes a lovely balance between being easy to track and the dramatic development of combat, tracked over more than just one encounter.

And yet, my opinion is that for more than 40 years, D&D has never really given us a damage system that properly integrates the implications of what hit points really mean.

5th edition probably comes the closest and gives us the best platform for addressing the gaps. The 5e DMG has a lingering wounds table. Throw in some hit point milestones for gaining levels of exhaustion on top and I think you have a good adjunct for tracking wounds and other effects alongside hit point that give dramatic consequences to combat whilst still being fairly simple.

For older editions, the fix is steeper, as the "hit point = wounds" mechanic is just so embedded. You'd need new healing rules, mechanics making use of hit points as a more fluid resource, etc. I don't think I'd want to go there.

But even in 5th edition, I'd like to see mechanics making more use of hit points as a fluid mechanism. "Temporary damage" from fear effects and low morale maybe? Critical hits giving temporary hit points to the attacker for a round or two. Stuff like that.

Either way, it goes to show, there is still room for growing the full implications of the original concepts of the game. Maybe 6th edition will finally take hit points and wounds to its natural conclusion?