Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Unstoppable Pincushions - HP in D&D

In D&D, characters steadily amass HP at each level, which means that a fifth-level character has, on average, five times as many HP as that character had at first level. Now, it doesn’t make that much sense to imagine that a fifth-level Magic User has acquired five times the capacity to have pointy bits of metal stuck in him. Without an injury system, the idea that each ‘hit’ scored in combat is an actual stab, slice, or bash with a club breaks the coherency of the fiction pretty quickly. Characters can quickly end up imagined as Saint Sebastian crossed with a Terminator.

Criv_St Seb80
Crivelli's Saint Sebastian says, "Is that all you've got? I'm a Paladin with 80 HP!"

If the concept of HP makes any sense, it is better to understand and, more importantly, to encourage players to conceive of them as ‘Hero Points’. Rather than the number of times the character can actually get hit, think of
HP as the number of times the character can nearly get hit, can manoeuvre so as to take a glancing blow, can absorb sub-injury fatigue and bruising; the dead legs, the aching shoulders, the bruised ribs, the burning, gasping lungs, before a character takes a telling, fatal blow. Think of HP as a combination of fighting skill, experience, conditioning to the peculiar physical and psychological – e.g. dealing with stress, terror, and exhilaration – demands of combat, and perhaps most importantly luck and/or the blessings of fate. For human-sized characters at least, only a very small component of HP should be the ability to fight on with actual wounds. Because a human or demi-human ought to need only get stuck with a sword once before he dies, no matter the level, but then no ‘hero’ ought be killed by the first ‘hit’ in a role-playing game such as D&D.

Of course, the HP value of monsters need not represent exactly the same thing as it does for characters. HP is an abstract value. A Fighter’s 50 HP does not represent exactly the same thing as the 50 HP of a dragon. A dragon should be able to take many more actual sword blows than the human, in which case a greater proportion of the HP value is taken up by physical resilience, and less is derived from luck, fate, and that peculiar ability to make that last minute, but exhausting adjustments in the face of potentially lethal blows.

Narrating combat of this kind as a GM can be demanding. Draw on the choreography of the sword fights of cinema – characters arms grow heavy from constant parrying, the deflected blows of edged weapons still strike their victims, but on the flat, when weapons are locked the character with the upper hand is able to land a kick, a knee, a punch, or a headbutt, and characters scoring a 'hit' will have put their opponents in a series of awkward positions. And yes, a sub-lethal hit will sometimes be a nick or a graze. When done well this helps new players pick up on the level of abstraction found in most
RPG mechanics – I have found that it breaks the coherence of the fiction for some new players when they are faced with the idea that they can ‘hit’ for maximum ‘damage’, but their opponent is able to fight on without any injury of significance to the game mechanics.

Healing lost HP can present new narrative problems – if the physical aspect of HP are ‘sub-injury fatigue and bruising; the dead legs, the aching shoulders, the bruised ribs, the burning, gasping lungs’ etc., surely a simple rest will be enough to restore a character to full HP? Having played rugby as a front row forward – a sub-lethal level of physical confrontation – I know that this is a gross underestimation of the effects of a physical contest, even when they do not produce discrete, identifiable injuries such as sprained joints and broken bones. Sub-injury pain and fatigue can last for days. The biographies of professional rugby players talk of them having to be helped out of bed and into their clothes on the days after particularly brutal matches, and as for boxers… These are sub-lethal physical contests. Add in the psychological stress of engaging in deadly combat, and the concept of ‘using up’ luck, or the blessings of fate, and there is a good reason why it can take a character some time before they are back up to full HP after a particularly brutal fight – in game terms I allow recovery of 1 HP per Hit Dice(HD)/Level per day, with 1D3 HP per HD/Level per day if properly resting, and more if being nursed. Add in any narratively/mechanically significant injuries you might impose on the characters, perhaps when ‘hit’ within the range of their last HD, and you have a recipe for justifying why characters can’t simply bounce back to full HP after a good sleep, while at the same time maintaining that high HP characters aren’t being stuck with pointy bits of metal over and over again.


  1. When I started playing in th 80's the idea that the combat system in D&D should be viewed as abstract never entered my head. As I moved on to games like MERP and GURPS they made combat more realistic but somehow less fun.

    Now having rediscovered D&D (actually Labyrinth Lord really) I have no problems with the notion that not every HP lost equals a physical wound to match. I'm actually a little surprised at the volume of house rules out there that seem to be concerned with adding realism to combat. However, I hadn't really considered healing and I think you're recovery rules are spot on. Seems to make sense that a 8HP 1st level fighter reduced to 1HP should take around the same time to heal as an 80HP 10th level fighter that's been knocked down to 10HP.

  2. "realistic but somehow less fun"

    MERP was one of the games that I 'graduated' to from BECMI D&D. I thought it was more 'realistic', and I've retained a real liking for the idea of 'critical hit' systems. However, at the time found the rules system to be a real 'fun sink'. I've since sold all my MERP stuff, partly to raise money for more BECMI D&D stuff, so I'm unable to check whether I'd hold the same opinion as an adult. But then as I have grown older I've found that I'm not after 'realism'; I don't really want to play a simulation, but rather a game that retains enough colour and flavour to conjure a convincing picture of a fantastic world.

    Also, part of what turned me off MERP is the setting - no, really! I enjoyed Lord of the Rings, but it hardly a fun-filled book, and none of the MERP supplements or sourcebooks seemed to have any fun - or humour - about them.