Before you stands your foe, a burly giant of a man wrapped in steel and brandishing a battle worn blade with both hands. Blood drips from the blade down his gauntlets, landing on the bodies that litter the road before him. With a mighty voice he commands you “Be gone or thou shalt face mine wrath!” You wonder for a second why in this world, where everyone seems to speak normally, this knightly character suddenly sports this bad Elizabethan style of speech. No matter, at least the DM is trying. Do you think you can take him? Probably AC 22 tops? 40-60 hit points? That’s what, seven or eight good stabs in the chest? Bury an axe in him with a good hit as many times? A level one pleb only needs to be shot in the chest with an arrow once to die, but this guy? He’s ready to take a dozen shots, and that’s only if you find a gap in his armor! The simulationist cringes at this mechanic and storyteller rolls her eyes at the absurdity of the combat system. Clearly Hit Points in most fantasy role-playing games are broken, or maybe we’re just doing it wrong.
Many game systems have tried to improve upon Hit Points, they are present in every type of role-playing in one way or another. In doing so, some end up re-inventing the wheel with complex layers of different damage categories or conditions, some do away with the concept altogether but in doing so certainly stray from role-playing orthodoxy. No matter what the rule book describes, and how your other stats do or don’t change based on that important measure of life, below are five options you can apply to your game to help turn a number into a narrative that the simulationist and the storyteller can both appreciate.
1) HIT POINTS COME FROM EXPERIENCE POINTS
Leveling up; the joyous and wonderful reward we give your characters for staying alive, will turn the timid level one noob into a seasoned level 8 veteran. Through XP we attempt to simulate the increase in skill that comes from doing that particular activity. In the case of adventurers, staying alive is a big part of daily life. It’s the experience of staying alive that makes us better at staying alive next time. Practice makes perfect.
2) HIT POINTS ARE A SKILL, NOT A PHYSICAL TRAIT
Did your paladin slowly grow kevlar skin and carbide bones as his career progresses? If the answer is yes I really want to know the name of that game and where I can buy a handbook. That sounds awesome. Probably the reason Sir Paladin von Bravenstein stands toe to toe with a Hill Giant is that he is so damn good at protecting his squishy body, even from the literal tree trunk of a club his foe is smashing him with. This is because a blow that would crush any other man glances off the hero’s shield doing only minimal damage, shaking him but not killing him. Remove 16 hit points, but remember, that’s only 20% of his total pool. He’s so good at this you could do it all day!
3) HIT POINTS ARE STAMINA, NOT A WOUND THRESHOLD
Ok, maybe our hero can’t do this all day. Eventually the punishment is just too much to endure. Why after being smashed 6 times did the 7th finally fall our hero? Was having a seventh rib break just one rib too many and he gave up the ghost? Well probably not, a few hours to a few days of rest (depending on your system) would have had him in tip top shape again. It’s likely the initial damage he endured was less bone fracturing and more muscle fatiguing. It seems more plausible to say that deflecting blow after blow pushed him to the point of exhaustion; he dropped his defense, couldn’t get the shield up in time, and the final hit made a real pretty splat.
4) HIT POINTS ARE HOW YOU AVOID INJURY, NOT A MEASURE OF YOUR INJURY
Every hit leading up to that last one left a superficial injury at most, the final hit was full-on lethal damage that would dispatch any man (or no-man if we want to be Tolkien about things). Being at 10 hit points away from death didn’t necessarily mean our high-level hero was a bloody mess, whatever kind of mess he was could have been cured with a good night sleep. But oh man was he in danger! A player cannot feel their hero’s pain, but hopefully the numbers help them empathize with their hero’s sense of danger.
5) HIT POINTS CAN BE THE BLESSING OF THE GODS
Ok, ok, so what about healing? What about a nice cure critical wounds, prayer of mending, healing touch, or whatever your system calls it? (This could be an article in itself- How to role-play a healer without resorting to spell casting surgery: 4 simple descriptors to make your healing mystical and mythical). If our heroes aren’t actually receiving critical wounds, then how do we go about healing them? You’ve gotta get the Hit Points back up somehow!
History shows us that it is very easy for humans to believe that the outcome of a battle was based on which army had their gods’ favour and whose god was stronger. Cool, evoking this favour is your cleric’s job. Instead of erasing cuts and bruises, channel the divine spirit into your fellow champions, thus granting them the strength and wisdom to keep their defenses true. Allow that mystical prayer that was uttered to become a divine bulwark that mechanically is really just restoring those hit points. DMs, throw in some cool effects to bring this to life. Have the glimmering flashes of angels appear in the corner of your players’ vision. Have the druid’s prayer cause a cooling breeze to blow that refreshes our hero’s body and spirit while the clouds allow the sun to only shine in the monster’s eye. Have that bardic tune actually just give us a mental edge that restores some of that ability to avoid damage and to dig deep inside for more stamina to continue deflecting the incoming blows. By the end of the fight have the surviving enemies cower not just before us, but before the might of our god(s); our cosmic aegis, not our cosmic Band-Aid.
Certainly Hit Points, by their design, are supposed to convey some level of injury and the result of your weapon hitting its target. The above ideas are not meant to totally overrule all that that, but I presented them as counterpoints to show that we can indeed look at Hit Points in a very different way.
Anthony is lifelong dreamer and hobbyist who approaches role-playing as one part storyteller and one part rules lawyer. Role-playing interests include world building, back stories, character accents and voices, and trying to keep his inner simulationist in check. Other hobbies include raising reptiles and playing World of Warcraft.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.