Roleplaying

Why D&D-Style Hitpoints Aren’t An Abstraction

A classical painting with a man who's been stabbed and hacked with a sword.
It should be obvious by now that hitpoints like those found in D&D, Pathfinder, and similar games don’t make any sense. Characters can take a dozen hits or fall from a great height and walk away unscathed. Normally, there’s no reason to harp on how absurd this is other than to discuss how new games can do better.

But every once in a while, someone will hit upon the idea that D&D-style hitpoints are actually an abstraction, so they make perfect sense. They don’t represent physical health, the argument goes, they represent stamina or maybe a character’s narrative plot shields. This take seems to be getting more common, and I’ve even seen it written into RPG books themselves like some sort of charm against criticism.

This argument doesn’t hold up, but it has the potential to set game design back a decade if too many people take it to heart. That means it’s time to talk about exactly why D&D-style hitpoints will never feel like an abstraction, so we can put this idea to bed.

The Terminology Doesn’t Make Sense

The first hurdle you run into when trying to imagine D&D-style hitpoints as an abstraction is the way the rules are described. The word “hit” certainly implies that hitpoints refer to being physically struck rather than some kind of near miss or immaterial scratch, but that’s not all.

The terminology found in abilities that give hitpoints back is even thornier. The most well known of these are D&D’s Cure Wounds spells. These spells are described as healing physical injuries, just like their title implies. If hitpoints represent abstract stamina rather than actual damage, then what wounds are being cured?

This isn’t just an issue in fantasy systems. Games set in a modern universe usually have a First Aid or Medicine skill that performs the same function, restoring hitpoints as if the character had suffered an actual injury. At this point, it starts to seem like characters with hitpoint loss spontaneously generate a wound to be healed once the medic comes over.

The problem goes beyond healing. Most games refer to a successful attack roll as a “hit,” not a “near miss that tires your opponent out.” Characters have an Armor Class or a Dodge Difficulty, again giving players the impression that they’re making physical contact. It’s an uphill battle to convince players they haven’t really taken a dozen sword hits when everything in the rules says they have.

Everything Else Is Simulationist

Let’s say you can get past the terminology issues. The next hurdle you’ll run into with abstract D&D hitpoints is that most systems that use them are otherwise incredibly dedicated to simulating the real world.

These simulationist systems have precise rules for how many seconds are in a round, how many times a character can attack in that round, and even how many feet they move in those few seconds. Range increments are precisely calculated in real measurements, and cover bonuses are assigned based on what percentage of the character’s body is hidden.

Some games go even further, with precise distances for how far a character can jump based on their height or carefully calculated rates of ammo consumption. When a game is that detailed about most elements, GMs can’t expect players to suddenly switch gears and view health as a vague abstraction that could mean anything.

More specifically, GMs can expect players to do that, but a lot of them won’t. Players will naturally assume physical damage is as precise and simulationist as the rest of the game. This is what they’ve been primed to expect, and telling them that’s not the case doesn’t create good results.

The Implications Are Absurd

Let’s assume a player can get past a game’s terminology and other simulationist aspects to view D&D-style hitpoints as an abstraction. Next, they have to deal with the ridiculous cartoon world that abstraction creates. It’s bad enough when they’re only dealing with melee attacks. Sure, the fact that a max damage hit doesn’t even phase a mid-level enemy makes it feel like the PC is wielding foam weapons, but it’s not too difficult to imagine an opponent bending to avoid the blow or raising a shield in defense.

The absurdity really starts when you get into area effect weapons. In fantasy games, these are usually spells like Fireball, while modern and scifi systems use grenades. Either way, D&D-style hitpoints allow characters to survive a ball of fire or fragmentation grenade going off at their feet, and it’s really hard to explain that with an abstraction.

All the normal ways a character might survive an explosion are forbidden by other rules. The character can’t run away because that would violate movement rules. They can’t hide behind something because there are usually precise rules for cover, and hitpoints function the same way even if the character is standing in an empty room. All you’re left with is the image of a Looney Tune getting blown up only to wipe the soot off their face and keep going.

Then you get into natural damage from things like falling or fire. High-level characters with D&D-style hitpoints can survive hundred-foot falls with ease or stand within a raging inferno as the fire plinks away at their HP. What kind of abstraction do you use for that, exactly? The only way it doesn’t completely shatter the group’s suspension of disbelief is if this is a campaign about Greek heroes from the Iliad.

Hitpoints Act Like Physical Health

No matter how many people try to excuse D&D-style hitpoints as an abstraction, they’ll never get around the fact that having a lot of HP is indistinguishable from being able to soak up absurd amounts of physical damage. We’ve already covered how characters get more HP from a higher stamina attribute, and how healing spells return HP like they’re fixing an injury, but it goes further.

Consider a fairly common action scenario: holding someone at gunpoint, or bowpoint as the case may be. The drama of this situation comes from one character not being able to do anything for risk of being shot. But under D&D-style hitpoints, that character can either rush their enemy or calmly walk away, confident in their ability to shrug off the one or two hits they might receive.

A similar dynamic occurs when a high-level character goes out to fight a horde of low-level enemies. In prose or film, we’d see the character employ clever tactics to avoid fighting all their enemies at once, or maybe they’d sport some kind of magical talisman that protects them from harm. But with D&D-style hitpoints, none of that is necessary. The PC can soak up dozens of arrows and swords standing perfectly still, just by virtue of their hitpoints.

At this point, it doesn’t really matter if hitpoints represent abstract stamina or the number of bullets a character can absorb before keeling over because it’s become a distinction without a difference. No matter how cleverly the GM describes near misses and battle fatigue, D&D-style hitpoints still create a world where no one above level three or so needs to fear physical damage, unless it’s from one of those rare abilities that can mysteriously kill without having to deal with hitpoints at all.*

Abstract Health Must Actually Be Abstract

The idea of using abstract hitpoints isn’t inherently bad. In fact, I generally prefer it over systems that try to be hyper-realistic. It turns out that trying to accurately simulate injury to the human body is a real pain. But the hitpoints must actually be abstract; they can’t just be labeled that way after the fact.

Many systems have managed this over the years. 7th Sea has an excellent system of flesh wounds and dramatic wounds, with the former representing all the inconsequential scrapes that swashbuckling heroes get. Fate uses a narrative system to represent how well a character is doing in the fiction. Mouse Guard assigns an extremely abstract “disposition” to each side of a conflict to represent how close they are to winning.

Each of these systems has a different approach, but they all have one thing in common: their hitpoints were designed to be abstract from the beginning. They weren’t given that label as a way to deflect legitimate criticism.

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Comments

  1. Jenn H

    In D&D Hit Points increase faster with level than many other aspects, such as AC, mundane weapon damage, skills, saving throws etc. It is weird that they designed it like that, resulting in high level wizards being able to shrug off volleys of arrows with no armour or magical protection, while lv 1 commoners will die if the barbarian sneezes too hard near them.

    • Deana

      I have two words for that: “Here, Kitty!”

  2. Lizard with Hat

    Now I picture in my mind the Greek heroes of the Iliad equipment with foam-swords another LARP-Gear – it’s priceless

    Also I would add, that this feeling of power is what most D&D-Players I came across liked – so may D&D is (or should be) the Greek-Epos-Simulator

  3. GeniusLemur

    “Greek heroes from the Iliad.”
    And even THAT doesn’t work, because Achilles one-pops Hector in their final battle, with a normal spear.

    • Aronan

      Well, depending on the system and/or edition there are effects and weapons that instakill in a critical hit or something similar

    • Asyles

      Achilles landed a brutal critical hit on Hector OR the unlucky bastard rolled a 1 on his dodge roll.

  4. Suscriptor Justiciero

    Apparently, according to what I’ve read, Gygax & co intended hit points to be mostly an abstraction, back in the day. Of course I agree with you that the end result doesn’t really work like that.

  5. GeneralCommentor

    From the AD&D 1st edition Player’s Handbook, as written by Gary Gygax:

    “These hit points represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed. A certain amount of these hit points represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained. The remainder, a significant portion of hit points at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and / or magical factors. {snip} Let us suppose that a 10th level fighter has 55 hit points, plus a bonus of 30 hit points for his constitution, for a total of 85 hit points. This is the equivalent of about 18 hit dice for creatures, about what it would take to kill four huge warhorses. It is ridiculous to assume that even a fantastic fighter can take that much punishment. The some holds true to a lesser extent for clerics, thieves, and the other classes. Thus, the majority of hit points are symbolic of combat skill, luck (bestowed by supernatural powers), and magical forces.” (PHB p. 34)

    While you can argue the efficacy of hit points as a concept, from the very beginning they have been intended as a mechanical abstraction rather than a direct, simulationist representation of the character’s health. The absurdity of falling damage and the like brought up in the article are only absurd if hitpoints are taken as a direct, simulationist measure of how much damage a character’s body can take before giving out. Surviving greater fall distances at higher levels only works if we take hit points as an abstract measure of a character’s narrative importance. Just as John McCain can take an absurd amount of damage because he’s a main character, so too can a higher level D&D character take more damage because hit points are an abstract representation of their narrative importance.

    Oren, I have to admit I feel that a lot of your articles show a lot of ignorance about the history and development of a lot of RPG game mechanics and, even though you frequently try to espouse the ideals of narrative focused gaming your point of view far too frequently falls prey to the trap of viewing mechanics as in-world physics and laws of nature rather than rules applicable only to the players that seek to enforce the tropes and conventions of the genre the game is trying to emulate.

    • Neon Streets

      His point is still valid despite research. That snippet, as a player and a GM, is useless: all that talk is pretty much fluff, I still have to drain a PC/NPC’s HPs to defeat them. Does it matter if I’m hacking at someone’s narrative importance, stamina or actual body? Nope.

      Tropes and conventions are only useful when they bring something to the table – plinking at a target is hardly what I associate with fantasy fiction. HP’s math and concept were faulty from the start and they never got fixed. Whereas writers can handwave blows, GMs (and players to an extent) can not, you roll for each of them.

      Ultimately, I think Oren’s right but of course, your mileage may vary.

      • GeneralCommentor

        For the purposes of determining whether HP are an abstraction or not, yes, the distinction does matter. The title of the article is “Why D&D style hit points aren’t an abstraction” when they very clearly are. There’s discussion as to whether they’re an EFFECTIVE abstraction but at the end of the day they’re still an abstraction.

        A lot of the problem with the ineffectiveness of D&D as a fantasy simulator is that it was not originally created as a generic fantasy system. From the days of the earliest editions the rules have been very heavily geared towards it being a fantasy tomb-robbing simulator, and the way hit points make a lot more sense when viewed in that framework: They’re a constantly depleting resource that needs to be managed as players try to recover treasure from a dungeon before being murdered by monsters.

        And I’m not arguing “right” or “wrong”, I’m arguing the validity of the arguments presented to support this thesis. I agree there are more effective systems to achieve the same thing as HP, but saying HP is not an abstraction is incorrect both in terms of practice and intent of the original designers.

    • Adam Thaxton

      Yeah, the books have always said that hit points are an abstraction, but they don’t work like an abstraction. To affect you, things that injected poison had to do hit point damage, which implies there’s a wound happening. Cure spells have no effect on undead or constructs (or the opposite effect), which, if they were meant to be abstract, they certainly would. Curse spells were Necromancy back in the day, as well, again implying that they’re patching wounds.

      • GeneralCommentor

        None of those points really suggest HP isn’t an abstraction, in fact a couple only work if we take HP as a generalized abstract rather than a hard and fast measure of physical damage.

        The idea of Cure spells not working on undead is complete nonsense if we take HP as a direct measure of physical damage and wounds: dead bodies still take the same damage as living ones and that shouldn’t make a difference to magically repairing damage.

        This is all beside the point as the quote from the PHB I posted above directly states that HP does cover physical damage, but it also covers a bunch of other factors that ultimately affect a character’s ability to keep fighting.

        • Bubbles

          I think the reason, in 3.5 at least, that undead aren’t healed (in fact, they are harmed) by Cure spells is because they are powered by negative energy, not positive energy as living creatures are and Cure spells use. That said, I still would agree with several other commentators that this article seems to conflate whether something is an abstraction with whether something is effective as an abstraction.

          Frankly, the writers of this blog seem to complain a lot about D&D. Of course, that’s their opinion and it’s an okay opinion to have, but when people start claiming or implying that everyone must share these opinions on what is, after all, just a game, it becomes a problem. And I’m still looking for any other system that allows you to play a wide variety of races and classes (or at least such a wide variety of characters in general), has monsters following essentially the same rules as the PCs do, is easy to pick up, yet has very detailed rules governing the world and lots of character options. I haven’t found one so far.

    • Kannik

      Thank you GeneralCommenter for posting this; I was going to do the same thing. The 1e PHB makes clear that, from the get-go, Hit Points were never intended by the game designers to equate solely to meat (ie physical damage). That they are an amalgamation and abstraction for many things is stated right there on the tin. Even the current edition of D&D makes this clear: “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. … When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.”

      (Similarly, the a creators had a view on whether D&D was intended to be simulationist: “It [D&D] does not stress any realism (in the author’s opinion an absurd effort at best considering the topic!). It does little to attempt to simulate anything either. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity.” Does the game hold a lot of minute detail that might make us consider it simulationist these days? Sure. From a historical standpoint, the hobby evolved from tabletop wargaming which was heavily invested in minutia. They broke away as much as they were able to conceive of and were comfortable with at the time. We can have a conversation about whether they were successful or not, but once again their intent was clear and overtly stated.)

      Whether there are inconsistencies in how different effects in the game interact with this abstraction, or whether the underlying game effect of “fine until dead” works or does not work for the story D&D is trying to tell, or whether there are edge cases where it goes off the rails, or wheter certain editions of the game leaned heavily more one way or the other, those are all different conversations. Potentially interesting and fruitful conversations, but the basic premise of this point that “every now and again someone will hit upon the idea that D&D-style hitpoints are actually an abstraction” as though it is some fringe fan theory is baseless and somewhat absurd. The designers of the game had a clearly stated intent of HP, and they were an abstraction.

      Whether your particular gaming group viewed hit points as an abstraction or as purely physical durability is not the determinant of how they were intended (and all the oddity that comes along with it). There wasn’t any subtext, the designers clearly indicated their intent and created HP as an abstract measurement of representing a character’s overall progress from healthy to very much dead.

  6. Matthew

    I’ve always considered talking damage to mean taking very minor injuries that wear you down, such as scratches and bruises. You still get hurt, but it isn’t always a serious injury.

  7. Dr. Humby

    Aside from the fact that the power level of PF and D&D more naturally suits Greek Hero-like levels of power and conflict, along with its own considers traditions, and aside from the previous point that they kind of ARE abstracts even if it’s a sloppy application.

    I fail to see why it would set tabletop back decades. At all.

  8. AbstractionTraction

    Agree 100%. It’s even more true when you realise that all damage is referred to as damage. If it’s a near miss, that’s not “damage.” You can’t deal fire damage to an abstraction. You can’t deal slashing or piercing or bludgeoning damage to an abstract concept like luck. And the damage you deal and the type of said damage certainly wouldn’t come from the weapon you use if it was just an abstraction of skill. None of it makes any sense. Fireballs hit but you make a dex save to take half damage, but within the world, your character stands in the exact same place they were before, which could be in the very centre of a 40ft diameter ball of fire, yet they only take half damage somehow and walk out unscathed. In addition, everything catches fire…unless you’re wearing it of course because that creates a magical protection somehow. It’s all nonsense from the fiction viewpoint. I understand the purposes of HP and the protection against personal belongings going on fire, from a gameplay perspective but it doesn’t match up to what’s actually happening in the world in any meaningful way, which personally, I feel is poor design. I believe narrative and mechanics should always go hand in hand. Otherwise it just pulls you out of the narrative. And when you look at the effects D&D spells would have on the world at large, the entire fiction falls apart. None of it is looked at from a story perspective. Most people won’t care though and just enjoy it for what it is, never even thinking of the wider reaching implications of the mechanics of D&D in the actual world itself.

    It’s like in Final Fantasy amongst many rpg’s. You use Phoenix Down to revive a dead party member in gameplay but in story, when someone dies, they’re just dead. That’s D&D in a nutshell. Realistically, every single major bad guy, king, duke etc. would be resurrected in D&D over and over. If the players can do it, so can kings and emperors and the bad guys. Whole fiction falls apart. But you just have to essentially ignore that stuff or find a different system if you want otherwise. Personally it does annoy me. I just find it sloppy and not well thought out. But alas. If you want things to make any modicum of sense, traditional rpg’s like D&D are not the place to go.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      In my head, whenever a D&D character makes a reflex save for half damage, I always imagine them doing a backflip in place and being less burned for it.

  9. Alejandro Zárate

    If HP aren’t an abstraction, then how do you explain characters being magically healed after sleeping for 8 hours?

    It’s not a flawless system by any means, but HP are and have always been abstract, just as AC (after all, heavy armor doesn’t make you better at dodging) or attacks per round (which don’t count actual swings of your weapon – just those that have a chance to inflict damage).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That is indeed one of the many contradictions with HP. The system tells you they all recharge when you sleep for 8 hours because they’re an “abstraction” but then treats them as literal for the rest of the time. An example of the designers wanting to have it both ways.

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