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?


  1. The WOTC Star Wars (based on 3.0/3.5) handled this pretty well. It split the points up between wounds and vitality, where wounds were physical injuries, and vitality was exhaustion. Crits went to wounds, so you could have situations where Darth Maul could kill Qui-Gon Jinn, even though he's four levels higher, and then in turn get taken out by padawan Obi-Wan. Vitality was reduced by standard "hits", as well as by Force usage.

  2. 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.

    As much as I hate to give 4e credit for anything... Didn't it have you gaining the "bloodied" condition at 50% HP? Maybe it shouldn't be taken literally, but the terminology used would seem to imply that the top half of your HP pool represents dodging/endurance/luck/etc. and when that's exhausted you start taking real blood-and-guts wounds.

  3. Good write up. Though I’ll chuck my hat in the RuneQuest corner, which has always played out very gritty thrilling encounters, with a strong sense of every hit could be your last. It creates different narrative expectations. I swing both ways as both dnd and RuneQuest give me different valued experiences.

    Coming back to hit-points in dnd, another game that gets a satisfying balance between Hp and wounds is The One Ring. It has Endurance (very much like hps) and wounds are taken separately with exceptional hits caused when a weapons injury rating is equalled. A wound takes you out of the fight. Equivalent would be falling to zero hit points in traditional dnd. But in TOR this can happen at any point in the attritional battle.

    It’s worth having a look at the 5e conversion of Trudvang. It’s going to the printers as I type. They’re aiming for a grittier 5e. They’ve introduced a wounded condition, which has similarities to the 5e exhausted condition tracker - with 6 levels of wounds, last being death iirc. A wound is triggered when you take damage over a wound threshold, and accumulate like the Exhausted condition. Everyone has a wound threshold which is based on your size (medium is 4) +Con mod +proficiency bonus. So it’s a low wound threshold.

    They’ve also introduced conditional/situational ruling that if you take damage over your wound threshold whilst Surprised, incapacitated, or unconscious you fall to zero-hitpoints.

    I think the inspiration for this last ruling is in AD&D, 3e, and 4ed dnd where conditional attacks could by-pass the hit-point mechanic and drop you to zero hps.

    The DMG has an optional rule (system shock/massive damage) that uses a half-hit point wound threshold for a similar effect - dropping to zero-hit points. If you wanted to unlink that rule from inflating hit-points, I imagine it could be implemented with criticals. With the Con save as a last safety net.

    1. I like the idea of a wound track similar to exhaustion. Maybe even the actual same track. Something I could steal for my own games.

    2. Yes it’s a neat idea which just slots into the existing 5e game. To give you more detail:

      The wound threshold is as I explained based on Size + Con bonus + Proficiency Bonus. So scaling as you level up is quite limited, but they are Going for a gritty game to match they’re setting.

      Size bonus for the calculation is:
      Tiny 1
      Small 2
      Medium 4
      Large 6
      Huge 10
      Gargantuan 14

      The wound tracker is as follows:

      1) Lightly wounded - Disadvantage on Ability checks

      2) Bloodied - Disadvantage on saving throws

      3) Brutally wounded - Speed is halved, no reactions

      4) Broken - Disadvantage on Attack rolls

      5) Unconscious - Incapacitated

      So it’s 5 steps in total. After a long or short rest you may move up one step on the Wound Tracker. Wisdom medicine (DC 15) will also move you one step up. Recovering healing through standard hit dice does not heal you on the wound tracker. I think some classes have abilities that may help recover on the wound tracker too.

      I guess you could change the wound threshold to suite different types of games, or substitute a critical hit? But food for thought.

      There’s more to Trudvang 5e including bespoke fear rules, magic, and classes. Its a very rich and dangerous/gritty setting. But this aspect seems really relevant to what you were thinking on.

    3. Like exhaustion, the trundvang 5e wound tracker is accumulative.

    4. Trudvang also has a far less verbose write up of an optional Lingering wounds mechanic. Makes me almost want to use it. Its slightly tweaked from the DMG, but the same order of results. The optional rule triggers when you are Brutally wounded( see wound tracker) or critically hit.

    5. I ended up publishing Into the Unknown, my B/X version of 5e, since I wrote this entry and there I also presented an optional rule for wounding that was inspired by my observations about Arneson and his wound tables:


      I like it for how there is always a potential price to be paid for dropping to 0 hp, but also for it encourages PCs to stay standing after dropping to 0 with even greater risks to be had when doing so.

      Trudvang sounds *very* gritty, but worth checking out at some point, I think. I am always interested in what people are doing with the 5e engine.

    6. Yes that’s a very good ruling in Into The unknown which I overlooked a little. I like how it fits in to the existing rules, with exception of remaining conscious. The potential of instant death adds another option to the narrative in a 5e game, rather then just the longer drawn out death saves. Likewise the adrenaline surge is a neat idea.

      Brancalonia is another 5e game to look out for, some colourful additions to the 5e rule set, including breaking weapons, and a non-lethal unarmed combat condition tracker (like exhaustion again).

    7. With the optional rule for wounding in Into The Unknown, are you just rolling 2D6 to determine the wound/Effect, or does the rolled damage add to the number as well. The reading of severity of damage made me question the intention.

    8. Lol - just re read my post one back. Please delete “with the exception of remaining conscious” that’s not what I meant at all, I like the ruling in its entirety 😅

    9. just rolling 2d6. Rolled damage is more of an interpretive measure for the GM to describe what kind of wound is sustained.
      I think there is enough going on with exhaustion, auto-failed death save if you are injured after dropped to 0 and rolling on the table in the first place.

    10. Thanks, yep makes sense. I need to use that rule in my next 5e game. I like it 👍

    11. The only thing I would change now is perhaps make it 2d4 weeks of downtime to recover from a lesser wound. But that's more on whether you want PCs to go on their next adventure with the wound or not.

  4. While I’m on the subject of wounds (well falling to zero hit-points) I should mention the players guide to Xoth (a conanesque setting) also has an optional mechanic that when an attacker rolls a critical, they roll another d20, if that is also a critical the target falls to zero-hitpoints and death saves. Keeps a very small element of unpredictability to combat no matter the level.

  5. To return to your conclusions about the 5e game in the article, Trudvang is doing something very similar to what you proposed with its wound tracker. You could of course just use the exhausted condition instead their bespoke wound tracker , and adjust the wound threshold trigger for your own tastes. But it’s basically the same concept as what you proposed as an additional wounding mechanic. I like the idea of what you proposed for playing with the idea of hitpoints/hero points and their fluidity in the 5e game. That makes sense


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