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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  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.

        • Greg S

          Acolyte: Why does my lowly cure light wounds spell restore the squire to full health when he was almost dead, but it takes your much higher level spell to cure the cuts and scratches on the high level knight?

          Grand Curate: Because out spells aren’t actually curing wounds, young one, they’re curing ABSTRACTIONS.

          Seriously, you can quote Gygax and any other authority’s transparently bogus rationales all day long, but I’ve been playing D&D since 1978 and hitpoints have never made any real sense.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Just wanted to let you know that this comment made me laugh, Greg. I love it.

          • Arhalts

            This is two years late but. Because cure wounds cures a wound. At level 1 getting stabbed went deep and took you out of the fight at level 10 you learned to roll with it and keep the cut shallower and less debilitating. In both cases the wound is closed and healed but at level 10 you managed to make the wound it’s self less serious.

    • 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.

      • Greg S

        If you don’t think D&D was ever intended to be at least to some degree simulationist, I suggest you look up the rules for the percentage chance of getting a disease or parasitic infestation as written by Gygax in the original DMG. Pretty intense stuff.

        Or the Old Players Handbook, where female human fighter STR maxes out at 18/50% whereas male humans can go to 18/100%

        Or dozens of other rules in those old books that were uneccesary to game balance or fun, but thrown in for “realism”

  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.

      • Dave L

        Order of the Stick #19 panel 5 and #848 panel 4, among others

  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.

  10. Michael

    After the “healing when you sleep for 8 hours” comment I’ve come to the conclusion that many of you, including the author are arguing about a system you have little or no direct experience of. Unless sleep/healing underwent a radical alteration in 5th Edition that I’m unaware of as I’ve never read nor played it. Sleeping to get spells back, sure. But unless you’re first level it is unlikely that sleep is going to be a significant HP recovery option.

    I’m speaking as a person who has run games since the inception of the hobby. I’ve played, but mostly run all the versions of D&D up through 4th. Heck, I broke my highschool’s chess club by introducing D&D. I’ve GM’d at least another 25 different role playing games in that time as well. The only major mechanic of the first thirty years or so I don’t have direct experience with is D6 and I’m looking at that now.

    What I’ve gathered recently, from exposure to friends who happen to be writers is that they’ve lost sight of the purpose of playing these games. They watch Youtube channels where people who are really good at acting and improv play RPGs and think “Yes, this is how it should be!”.

    They, and I suspect you don’t understand that story is emergent from play and the purpose of play is to have something called “fun”. I think gaming has lost sight of that basic principle.

    Narrative RPG systems encourage, even force story. Like using a sledge hammer to drive in a finishing nail. The most players come away with largely are anecdotes from fun sessions – memorable sessions, not “remember when I described that thing?”. And they don’t exactly spur inventiveness either.

    Example: The group I play with was testing Sentinel Comics, based on Sentinels of the Multiverse and one of the writers, a real supers fan was playing Legacy, the Superman clone. He was rescuing some hostages and had a complication (the dice favor only complications as it takes an eight or higher on a d10 not to have one.). He chose to have one of the people he was rescuing be a neighbor of his secret identity, and recognize him. The single biggest trope in Superman, that they save for Lois Lane by and large and that’s where the mind of this writer went first. No subtlety, no finesse. Just, wham! I’ll use the single most overused and well known complication. Not because I suspect it made for a good story or seemed like what might happen but because it was the only thing he could think of at the moment.

    And that sort of thing is what takes me out of games, the possibility that players – and I was one in this instance – will be too busy trying to make the story work out or sound good instead of paying attention to fundamentals. Like “fun”.

    And, by the way. Arguing for some other method of tracking damage that is more accurate/lethal certainly sounds simulationist to me. If you want to understand HP I think you should watch The Punisher on Netflix and think of it as narrative armor or something.

    BTW, I only play/run D&D because that’s what people know best. Getting players to try new systems is like trying to herd cats. In the old days my players were more dedicated and I could try out new things on ’em. Long gone.

    Man, I can go on can’t I? But I’ve been having discussions about the relative merits of narrative systems with some friends and all I get is “I hear you man.” “I understand where you’re coming from.”. Which means they don’t at all really.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just for the record, in 5E, PCs recover all their lost hitpoints after a Long Rest, which requires them to at least rest for 8 hours, if not actually sleep.

  11. Bjorn Arnesen

    The biggest problem with the idea of D&D style hit points being an abstraction is the Positive Energy Plane. If standing there unprotected can literally “heal you to death” (when you reach double your maximum HP and EXPLODE), what is it healing? “You have too much luck. endurance, etc. and that overloads your body”? Yeah, doesn’t work. Then there’s the names of the healing spells, they include to word “Wounds”. Despite attempts to justify them as an abstraction, D&D hit points are and always have been “meat points”.

  12. Blake

    I think you’re barking up the wrong Treant with this article.

    The point you make is that D&D hit points are unrealistic – whether as an abstraction or taken literally, they are very unrealistic, yes. But, that point, made about a game where an elf can kill a dragon by pointing a stick at it, is not terribly compelling.

    Similarly, you make the argument that they’re a badly presented, badly implemented abstraction. You’re not wrong: D&D is really a pretty awful game. But, while they may be badly implemented as an abstraction, as a simulation they are orders of magnitude worse.

    That still might’ve been alright if you had ever gotten around to defending your thesis: that future game designs can do better.

    But, really, as bad as D&D hps are as an abstraction, and as much worse as they are as a simulation, they are pretty solid as a game mechanic. They let players have the continuity of playing the same character through a series of nominally very dangerous adventures.

    Any ‘better’ system will require players to avoid/negate danger, or accept frequent character changes (due to PC death). And, that’s not really, better, is it? One of the compelling things about RPGs /is/ developing a character over the course of play.

    • Colin

      I don’t feel like the D&D HPs allow for the risk/survivability relationship you’re theorizing there. If a GM is following the rules…particularly in 5e…the party is never actually in any danger whatsoever…A “deadly” encounter is not particularly deadly.

      Using solely the core book and not even fully optimized characters our last (hopefully forever last) d&d party routinely beat 3,4,5 up to 10 times deadly encounters. A weak encounter was double “deadly”. The GM never gave us anything easier than double deadly.The GM was also using house rules that punish casters (one short rest a day, long rest only between adventures). Our party was a fey (book) warlock (not as good as infernal), an un-optimized rogue thief, a life cleric and a partially optimized fighter (the maneuver’s one) with lots of feats (shield mastery, sentinel, heavy armor mastery). Not monte haul in regards to magic items, we finished the campaign at level 8, everyone had about two +1 items.

      D&D is just a bad game. Badly designed. I play it when I have to, because it’s what many people know and are comfortable with. Hit point mountain, the lack of risk to characters, and the arbitrariness of d20 resolution are definitely it’s biggest weak points.

      • Blake

        Admittedly, 5e may well be the least challenging edition of D&D when it comes to straightforward combats. Part of the design goals of 5e was to make combat faster and smoother, and, along with nominally ‘blancing’ the classes across a comparatively long 6-8 enounter ‘day,’ I suppose that ended up making individual combats less deadly and less interesting, as well.

        The drama/danger of 5e is supposed to be experienced over that full day. You might not theoretically be at risk of death in most encounters, but you do have to carefully manage your resources early on to be able to succeed later, that is a challenge, just an intellectual, resource-,management challenge rather than a visceral one.

        But, even if you did have a game that had combats that were challenging in that characters were statitstically likely to die, you still wouldn’t get the desired drama, since, over many combats, character death would be virtually a given, and players would not develop any attachment to such disposeable characters, they’d remain game-peice ‘pawns.’ Indeed, early D&D, fell into that patter with lower level characters when they did start with very low hps and real risk of death in most combats. It climbed out of it if a character managed to survive long enough to gain some levels.

        Later versions of D&D tried to make low level characters more survivable, from variants like max hp @ 1st level in 1e AD&D on up through 5e’s “too easy combats,” though it probablly actually peaked in 4e, it’s just the comparative safety of combat was masked by healing-dependence smoke and dynamic-tactical-combat mirrors, creating illusions of jeopardy & excitement. (Of course, the whole game is just an exercise in illusion – imagination – anyway.)

  13. wisp

    So, hit points are cool, but rules for movement, time and actions are sucks, right? Nah, I’m joking, I don’t like how hp works in the mainstream DnD either. However in ODnD, where all started, you could choose between TWO combat mechanics. The official rules used the wargame, called Chainmale, with plastic figures, speed, and all the crunchy stuff. In this system, as the characters leveled up, they became equal with greater units – a 1st lvl fighter worth one man, a 2nd worth two, and so on, so yes, they naturally became able to soak more damage. However, in this system, the monsters had the ability to attack as many times in a turn, as many HDs they had. Also, in 0E, every hp and almost every damage were rolled with D6’s, with sometimes some modifiers added – giants were REALLY scary with their 2d6 damage. So, for example, your lvl 6 fighter fights with a troll (6 HD). The fighter has 6d6 hp, and the troll can attack him 6 times, and every hit deals d6 damage – it’s not hard to see, that our fighter has a fair chance to become meal in one single round. Also, if I remember right, there’s not a single rule in ODnD about “loosing hit points from falling” or anithyng similar – I think, in that time, if you were stupid enough to fall from a cliff, or be set in fire, a generous GM would allow you some made up saving throw to survive or not. So, more hit points really only mattered in battles, and only made big differenc in fights with great level-difference involved.

    In the other hand, there was the “alternative combat system”, for those, who didn’t like messing with grids and plastic figures – the ancessor of what we call the “DnD combat system” It was more simpler back then: two tables, what telled you that “if you are at lvl X. and the enemy wears Y armor, then you have to roll at least Z to hit”. There was nothing about moving, speed, or actions, it was almost narativist. Or, at least, it allowed to be narrativistic, if you wanted to.

    I think hp is a cool idea, what survived this long for a reason. I agree that hp dont really fits for what DnD became in these years – but it’s not the hp’s fault. Two things, what in my opinion can make hp works well (for my taste, off course):

    – abstract range and movement system, sometthing similar, than Black Hack: it allows to imagine, that you jumped far enought to get only some nasty scars from the fire ball, but not enough to go Nearby, so you still can move in your turn.

    – exploding damage rolls: if you roll maximum a damage die, you can reroll it, subtract 1, and add the result to the damage. If you roll a maximum again, then you can reroll again, and so on. This way, there always be a chance, that someone dies from one hit, however, in most cases this won’t happen – just like in movies and books where of course the hero CAN be killed with a good move, but they WONT BE, because that’s not fun. If it really happens that WILL be fun, just because how rarely this happens.

    Sorry about my english, I’m still learning the language, and reading and writing abut things that interests me is the best way to do that

  14. AntiAuthority

    I agree 100%. In truth, the “HP is Abstractions” argument has a serious issue in that it goes both ways. If HP is an abstraction, then I suppose there’s nothing stopping a regular joe with an unenchanted dagger from sneaking up on a Tarrasque and slitting its throat since, “Hit Points are an Abstraction.” The Tarrasque, Balors, Pit Fiends, Ancient Red Dragons, etc. should all be capable of being one shotted by regular people since Hit Points do not represent durability in any form… So if having hundreds of Hit Points means your Human Fighter is just as likely to die from getting stabbed by a Level 1 Commoner as any other person, the same should apply to these god-like monsters in that a single gunshot, arrow or slash should be capable of threatening their lives as well.

    For added bonus, “The Tarrasque has Regenerate, so slitting its throat wouldn’t do anything!” Except… The Tarrasque is regenerating abstractions by this logic, so it doesn’t matter if it has Regeneration or not, its throat was still slit and no damage is being regenerated lol.

    If we want to take it even further, Trolls don’t regenerate from lumps of flesh. Doesn’t matter what’s happened, if they got their heads cut off or whatever, they’re dead and their “abstractions” are gone. Standing on lava for several seconds? Your abstractions are being burned. Being poisoned by a slash? The cut didn’t break your skin to poison you, the cut broke your abstraction and poisoned you. Coup de Grace to kill your enemy? You didn’t actually slit their throat, you slit their abstraction and that’s why they died! See how many mental gymnastics people have to go through to justify this?

    If HP is an Abstraction, then literally Regeneration stops working when monsters hit 0 HP and anyone can kill anything in one hit. If a monster having a ton of HP makes them tougher than anything that exists in real life, it’s only fair that the same apply to the PCs fighting them, otherwise you’re picking and choosing what does and doesn’t make sense.

    The thing is, the people pushing the HP are Abstraction argument want “this thing right here is an abstraction” but literally everything else like spells and such are literally what’s happening. I’m of the opinion that enough HP means that you go from “squishy human” to “bullets mildly sting you like an ant bite.”

  15. Kragnorak

    Coming late to this article, but I have a couple of observations that I have not seen addressed…

    First, I haven’t played true D&D in years. I didn’t like it, and that’s precisely because the hp and THAC0 systems caused too much cognitive dissonance. Let’s say that your fighter has 100 hps max, and is down to 10 hps. I would assume that means Sven-Sven has been slashed, torn, bruised, down on his fatigue, luck, etc. Yet Sven-Sven has EXACTLY the SAME fighting ability as when he is fresh to the fight. I know there are optional fatigue rules in some D&D systems, but the default is that your fighter has a huge buffer zone in which his actions are unlimited.

    To that end, I was thrilled when Mage Knight and HeroClix came along, because they introduced the concepts of character abilities evolving (for worse or better) depending upon how much damage has been received. I’d love to see this applied to an RPG system. A regular character would lose the use of some abilities but gain evasion and stealth abilities, for example. Or a berzerker would keep getting stronger as their hps get lower until they pass out or get killed.

    Second problem: D&D has no real Toughness stat. Toughness is why I much prefer most editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to D&D (aside from preferring the grimdark vibe). So let’s take Sir Balsph the knight as an example. He wears plate mail and is therefore very difficult to HIT in combat. I find that most problematic. Sir Balsph is not dodgy like a thief, he moves slower. A great armor class should not mean that the character is impossible to hit; it means that the armor should absorb and turn attacks (presumably taking some degree of punishment as well), while a ninja or thief with high Dexterity would be a character that is difficult to hit. Meanwhile, when actually struck, it is silly that a plate-armored human and a human wearing lederhosen would take the same exact same amount of damage once struck.

    The final thing that bothered me about D&D does not relate directly to hps, but is just as integral a part of combat. Different characters have various skills at their melee weapons, yet this is only reflected in their ability to hit. Why isn’t a superior swordsman like the Fighter able to use his weapon skill defensively compared to the Bard next to him? For this reason, I much prefer combat systems that either make opposed rolls or compare Weapon Skills before dealing with the results of hits.

    • BLAKE

      I was always bothered by the way skill seemed to have no impact on AC, even as it ramped up on the attack side. The only reasonable visualization was that such skill was bundled into hps (and saving throws, presumably, since a successful save would cause point-and-shoot ray type spells to ‘miss’). In 3.0, the ‘touch attack’ made it much more explicit what was going on with attacks that hit your touch AC, but not your total AC ‘obviously’ being deflected by your armor – but still little room for skill, the Feat (Combat) Expertise let you give up as much as 5 to hit for +5 AC, that was about it, once your BAB was 5+ you’d capped that option. In 4e your AC did rise at the same rate as your attack bonus – but did so for everyone, so, again, you were left with hps pulling quintouple duty as mass, luck, toughness, endurance, /and/ skill – or, simply, ‘abstract.’

      5e regressed almost completely: your ‘proficiency’ which still rises at the same rate for everyone, has no effect on your AC,so it’s down to hps for abstract defensive skill for higher-hp characters (like fighters) and damage (via multi attack or Extra Attack) to abstractly model greater skill at fighting.

  16. Alex Draper

    HP are basically the same as video game damage. There is no relationship to reality with them. D&D is essentially a tabletop video game. Be fine with that conceit or play something else…like Warhammer fantasy roleplay or Forbidden lands. Thing is D&D always feels lovingly cosy and fun to play so we just accept the nonsense of it all!

    • BLAKE 1001

      Or video games are computerized D&D. D&D was first published in ’74, and it’s close forerunner, Chainmail, two years earlier. The earliest video game – Pong – also appeared in ’74, and had no D&D-esq damage bars.

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