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Again With the Hit Points

Another stab at hit points

If you've been reading so far, you may recall that I'm not a fan of hit points. While I agree that they're an easy way to figure out and track how much damage a character can take, they fail me on two counts:

  1. You can't do one-shot kills - when a foe has more than 1 HD, you usually need multiple hits to bring him down, and
  2. You can't simulate performance degradation - meaning you're just as effective at 1hp as you are at 50hp

Since goofing around with Swords & Wizardry, it occurs to me that hit points are here to stay. I mean, I solved the issue with Chimera, but how do I simulate these things in S&W?

Here's a possible solution, with the added benefit of being able to use S&W stats without modification. In other words, it's a modular option that will work with existing material.

Damage Options

When you take damage, you have a choice:

  1. Soak it up - this option subtracts the damage from your hit point total, pretty much like you do now. The idea here is that hit points represent your mental/physical ability to deal with getting battered, hurt, hit, crushed, nicked, bruised, etc. When your hit points fall to zero, you're "vanquished."
  2. Take a wound - this option ignores hit points, but each wound imposes a cumulative penalty of -1 to your movement rate and all rolls (and I mean ALL rolls—attacks, damage, searching for secret doors, wandering monster checks, etc.). A wound's severity equals the damage inflicted, though severity does not affect the wound's penalty. You get a maximum of 1 wound per hit die; any more than that, and you're "vanquished."

Getting vanquished doesn't mean you automatically die, but it does mean that the victor (i.e, your opponent) decides what happens to you. That might mean you're captured, knocked unconscious, forced to flee, or (sadly) you get the killer blow. But PCs get a saving throw vs. a killer blow (if they succeed, they're unconscious for awhile and wake up with some permanent or temporary injury).

How Does This Help?

There's one more piece to the solution: exploding damage die. If you roll a critical (whatever a critical means in your game), the damage die explodes, meaning that if the roll shows the highest value for that die, you roll again and add the result. You keep doing this as long as you keep rolling the highest for the die. [1]

wounded harry potter

But he still has his hit points

This takes care of one-shot kills: rack up enough exploding dice, and you can drop a foe with one hit. Obviously, this is harder to do for opponents with lots of hit points, but it's still possible. Even though you'll still see opponents with crazy-high hit points, I think it's enough that this system allows for the possibility. [2]

But let's say my character gets hit with enough damage to drop him instantly. I can avoid it by taking a wound instead. This leaves my hit points intact, but now I have to accept a penalty to all my rolls (plus what amounts to a really severe wound that will take awhile to heal).

So here's the deal:

  • Soak up damage when you have enough hit points or when you want to avoid a performance penalty
  • Take a wound when you want to avoid a one-shot kill or you're low on hit points

Extra Bonus?

I've been toying with an end-of-adventure XP bonus based on damage taken, based on the logic that enduring physical or mental pain is probably a learning lesson.

In this model, you get 100 XP for every wound taken, but you also get 10XP for every hit point remaining at the end of the session. Clearly, this is incentive for characters to take a wound, which may cross the line into evil GM territory, but I still like the idea.


Healing works normally, except you can apply healing to wounds or hit points. Wounds are healed (and their penalty goes away) when their severity is reduced to zero (e.g., it takes 7 points of curing to heal a severity 7 wound). The big benefit here is that there's no change to the S&W healing guidelines or to curative spells and magic items.

Final Words

What I like about this system is: (1) characters can dictate their fate a bit more (lose hit points and remain at peak performance, or take a wound to save hit points), (2) it simulates the negative effects of getting your ass kicked, and (3) it works with the existing stats, so you don't really have to do any rewriting or conversion.

Assuming this model has potential, what needs to be tweaked and adjusted?

  1. I'm still working out the details for critical hits in my S&W game, but I think they work like this: Each character has a critical hit range on the attack die, equal to 20 minus his class-based to-hit bonus. Check the revised to-hit chart I posted last week, and you'll see that fighters will crit most often, followed by clerics, thieves, and magic-users. For example, a 4th-level fighter has a to-hit bonus of +2. If a to-hit roll results in 18, 19, or 20, and the attack succeeds, it's a critical hit. There's more to this, of course, which I'll reveal anon.
  2. Fussy-pants that I am, I have a solution for that, as well. More details to come, but for now, suffice to say that when you gain a level, you have the option of "trading in" your hit point roll for some other advantage. The net effect (for PCs, NPCs, and monsters) is a chance of less astronomical hit point totals.
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  1. September 14th, 2011 at 14:00 | #1

    Why in the world would you say that “hit points are here to stay”?

    Perhaps because you keep buying rules with them? Stopping that would seem a easier solution I’d think.

    Why do you on one hand feel that there needs to be one-shot outcomes in a system, and yet reach for a mechanic that allows the player to determine the outcome of an successful attack upon him?

  2. September 14th, 2011 at 20:58 | #2

    @gleichman : Why in the world would you say that “hit points are here to stay”?

    Perhaps lost in blog-translation, my point is that hit points are a common mechanic, familiar to many, and not likely to be replaced anytime soon.

    Perhaps because you keep buying rules with them? Stopping that would seem a easier solution I’d think.

    Well, Chimera doesn’t use hit points, and I actually wrote it. I don’t expect game authors to discard a mechanic that’s been entrenched for nearly 40 years. Just throwing this out there as a tweak to address where I feel hit points fall short.

    Why do you on one hand feel that there needs to be one-shot outcomes in a system, and yet reach for a mechanic that allows the player to determine the outcome of an successful attack upon him?

    I like one-shot outcomes because they add tension to the encounter and make for a memorable outcome/good story. The reason players get a choice is because this is the best way I could figure out how to implement the concept in S&W, using native stats (like hit dice and hit points). As a by-product, rather than just scratch off hit points, players have to think more tactically, which I don’t see as a bad thing. YMMV.

    In this respect, I think the approach does a good job of casting hit points in their proper role: hit points now indicate “stamina” in battle (i.e., soaking up damage), while wounds simulate one’s ability to actually stand up to a pounding (i.e., what you can physically withstand). Like you, I don’t buy into the hit-point-abstraction defence, but neither do I see them going away. So why not propose a way to work with the disease?

  3. September 15th, 2011 at 08:15 | #3

    Let me say first — I like the wound idea you proposed above. I agree that it does a nice job of creating the tension of “one-shot” while still allowing for a solid range of lesser results.

    On the other hand, I fought against using hit points for a long time but as I really thought about the idea of abstract hit points as a way to easily and conveniently model all of what happens to a PC, I came to enjoy the idea. It’s not perfect (falling damage still bothers me, for one) but overall, I’m good with it. (I only mention this because you mention the abstraction thing at the end.)

    Nice work here. I’m always interested in reading new ways to simulate damage in combat.

  4. deimos3428
    September 15th, 2011 at 16:11 | #4

    I like the “wound” idea, but I think this needs some more tweaking.

    If I’m reading it right, taking a wound actually eliminates one-shot kills. Who wouldn’t take a wound vs. being vanquished, given the choice? A vanquisher could wound you or worse, and you’ve got no option. The two rules are fine on their own, but combined they pose a bit of a head-scratcher.

    I like the idea of reducing effectiveness in conjunction with hit points somehow, rather than player choice, but that effectively makes every attack an energy-draining one in addition to normal damage. Perhaps a roll to indicate whether a wound is taken, depending somehow on the amount of damage rolled?

    Some people like exploding dice. Some people don’t. Personally, I don’t.

  5. deimos3428
    September 15th, 2011 at 17:08 | #5

    Hmm…on second thought my objection above goes away if you roll for damage *after* the choice of soak it up vs. wound is made.

  6. September 15th, 2011 at 19:34 | #6

    @Rhetorical Gamer : I’m liking the idea of hit points as an indication of “stamina,” which is open-ended enough to cover stuff like fatigue, stunning, and getting sick. For actual wounds, though (meaning, serious physical injury that impacts performance), I think something more is needed. Hence the wounds, which (as Deimos suggests) could use some tweaking…

  7. September 15th, 2011 at 20:31 | #7

    @deimos3428 : You’re reading it right. My thinking was that you might take a wound to avoid vanquishment™, but given their short supply, doom would catch up with you eventually.

    But I take your point. Maybe wounds are the path to one-shot kills. I want a distinction between hit point damage and wound damage, with the former wearing down your stamina and the latter causing a performance hit.

    I’d like to avoid having PCs make the choice before damage is rolled, just to keep things moving. So assume that there is no choice and that damage result indicates whether you take hit points or a wound. Like, maximum value on damage die equals a wound, or if a certain amount of damage over the armour’s protective value gets through you take a wound, or maybe there’s a way to use CON here.

    Still running into problems with (1) one-shot kills, (2) performance degradation, and (3) using existing stats. I think I need to sleep on it, but keep the suggestions coming.

  8. September 15th, 2011 at 23:03 | #8

    OK, I “slept” on it. Taking a more literal page from Chimera, how about this:

    On a normal hit (i.e., not a critical), damage is computed normally and subtracted from your hit point total. When you run out of hit points, you’re vanquished.

    When an attack is a critical hit, damage inflicts a wound instead of hit points. If the total number of wounds, or the damage from a single wound, exceeds your hit dice (N.B. hit dice, not level), you’re vanquished. Each wound imposes the -1 penalty as above, but now you also have your one-shot kill potential.

    Criticals are determined as above: if the d20 attack roll falls within the range of (20 minus the attacker’s to-hit bonus), and the attack hits, it’s a crit. No exploding dice, no change to the damage roll. This is also the same for monsters.

    Sensible outcome: attacks from powerful monsters that do a lot of damage will result in more one-shot kills than straight-up weapon-based attacks from mooks and low-level beasties.

    Thoughts? Do I need to go back to sleep?

  9. October 12th, 2011 at 23:40 | #9

    @deimos3428 : Hmm…on second thought my objection above goes away if you roll for damage *after* the choice of soak it up vs. wound is made.

    Or, turning this around, perhaps a combatant might declare his intent to wound or weaken the opponent before rolling to hit?

    Klar the barbarian attacks to weaken – if he hits, the damage is applied as hit points. If he later attacks to wound, the damage is applied a…well, wound.

    Interesting possibilities…would you apply a penalty to attacks made to wound? Perhaps to simulate the difficulty of landing a wounding blow as opposed to a merely palpable hit?

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