Friday, March 20, 2020

Whence comes hitpoints?

What are hit points? I wanted to know because I was thinking about how they benefit from ability scores. DH Boggs has some things to say with quotes from Gary and Dave. Or we can compare texts. Here are a few:

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 same 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)
Each hit scored upon the character does only a small amount of actual physical harm - the sword thrust that would have run a 1st level fighter through the heart merely grazes the character due to the fighter's exceptional skill, luck, and sixth sense ability which caused movement to avoid the attack at just the right moment. However, having sustained 40 or 50 hit points of damage, our lordly fighter will be covered with a number of nicks, scratches, cuts and bruises. It will require a long period of rest and recuperation to regain the physical and metaphysical peak of 95 hit points. (DMG p. 82)
Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile. (5E PHB p.196)

Literally healthier than a horse. StawickiArt.

Hit Points receive a bonus from:

Strength because strength is the ability score most closely tied to close combat skills. If you're better at parrying, you're less likely to take big hits. You're more physically able and durable.

Intelligence because it represents "mental might," or perhaps "mental acuity, (the) accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason" and smart quick-witted foes are less likely to put themselves in a bad position. Also, it is the ability score for magic users and Gary says it represents "magical forces." Surely those of significant supernatural magnitude are tougher and more dangerous?

Wisdom because it refers to "strength of understanding of the world, the way things work, the forces of nature, and so forth" or "how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition" and perceptive combatants are more dangerous. Also, it is the ability score of clerics and so it represents divine protection.

Dexterity because it includes the ability to dodge devastating blows such that they become nicks and scratches. It is also often a direct contributor to combat effectiveness especially for characters wielding "light" weapons like rapiers.

Constitution because it represents health and also because it is traditional and because it doesn't do anything else. If any ability score refers to the ability to sustain an injury, it is constitution.

Charisma because charisma comes from the Greek word khárisma and could refer to divine favor, basically "luck." Those acting under the aegis of the gods find themselves not just resistant but often immune to injury as long as they remain in their favor.

Or maybe hitpoints come from:

Armor because it makes you tougher to kill and reduces bad injuries to minor scrapes and bruises. Getting hit in the head with a rock still hurts with a helmet, but it's going to take a lot more of a strike to cause real injury.

Level because it is a mark of experience and survival savviness. PCs that have been on more adventures are better able to protect themselves from the dangers of the dungeon.

Attack Bonus because it is equivalent to combat skill. How else to parse that sentence?

The point is that nearly anything could be argued to contribute to hit points. Use all of them. Maybe use none of them.

How to make hit points work

Hit points are an abstraction. When you take damage that's past your max, you take an injury. Are you doing something in combat that reduces the enemy's ability to fight? It's probably just doing hit point damage even if it isn't "hurting" them. You probably don't need fancy mechanics for combat, you're just making attack rolls and when the enemy is reduced to 0, your objective is accomplished. The tools you use (usually, weapons) set the stakes and define your intentions in the battle and in what way they are disabled: dead, unconscious, submitted, etc. They don't take long to recover, either. Eat some lunch, take a breather, and heal back up. Injuries take awhile, as they should, but you only get those when you can no longer defend yourself because hit points aren't meat points. Defined mechanically, hit points are agency: once gone, you no longer get to define your character's actions and are now open to death or worse.

Old school games like saving throws that represent sources of danger rather than means of avoiding it. It's for a similar reason: the more heavily you define the means, the more edge cases and loopholes you have to account for. A dragon breathes upon you, but there is no place to dodge. Do you still make a reflex/dexterity saving throw?  I've run 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition and I'm not sure, but I do know that in others I would just roll Breath Weapon. The wizard spoke a word of warding or the paladin raised her shield.

Ben Wootten
Hit points are the same way. The more you try to define the source of them, how they work, how much damage something does, and how many you get, the less sense it makes and the more rules you need to accommodate it. Honestly, I'm inclined to just ditch them altogether and worry about hits, perhaps like Homebrew Homunculus here. We'll see. Hopefully more useful posts coming in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Back in the day a Hero character in Chainmail took 4 hits to kill, a Super Hero took 8 hits to kill. A signal hit would kill an ordinary warrior in man to man combat. Dave found this unsatisfying so changed 1 hit to 1d6 damage and 1 hit to kill to 1d6 hit points.

    This was later carried over into Gygax's Greyhawk campaign and thus into OD&D and not really explained. Thus people been trying to interpret hit points ever since.

    What the original mechanics of hits and kills meant was that the figure was taken out of combat usually to mean death. A hero needing four hits to kill could last four times longer in combat than an ordinary warrior.

    So what hit points are is a form of combat endurance. That a person with twice as many hit points expected to last twice as long in combat with all other factor equal. The mechanic is silent on any element of injury or death. Either the figure is fighting or it is not.

    Personally I narrate damage as a ration between the damage dealt and the max hit points of the characters. So a swing taking out half of a character total is going to be narrated by me as a grievous wound. For a lst level character this could be a 4 point hit. For a 10th level character this would be a 23 point hit.